Whenever you hear 'Rob Gronkowski' and 'back' in the same sentence, be concerned

Whenever you hear 'Rob Gronkowski' and 'back' in the same sentence, be concerned

The Patriots aren’t a “just rest him . . . ” kind of team.

As such, if the notion takes root on Sunday that Rob Gronkowski didn’t make the trip to Chicago because the Patriots thought they’d be cool to beat the Bears without him, discard it.

Bill Belichick takes great pains to point out that he doesn’t make medical decisions, the medical staff and trainers do. If a player is cleared, he’ll play. Gronk apparently wasn’t cleared so, no go. It’s not about beating the Bears with a Gronk tied behind their back. It’s about making sure he is healthy enough to play football and he wasn’t this week.

That’s why the back injury that popped up on Friday’s injury report and the fact that -- less than a day later -- Gronk was left behind is more than a mild concern.

The words “Gronk” and “back” in the same sentence are troubling given the issues he’s had with it since he was at Arizona. The last back surgery Gronk had was in 2016. His first was in 2009. He also had one prior to the 2013 season.

We don’t yet know the extent of this injury, but Gronk’s always been attuned to his football mortality. There were multiple reasons he considered retirement after last season, but health was definitely one of them.

There’s a vulnerability to Gronk that’s easily overlooked because of his goofy demeanor and the fact that he looks like the biggest kid on the playground when he’s on the field.

The injuries, the criticism he took during training camp last year, his staying away from camp and the Patriots interest in trading him, all of it seems to prey on his security in the NFL and here in New England.

After last Sunday’s win over Kansas City, when Gronk came out of mothballs in the fourth quarter and made two huge plays to put the Patriots in position to win, he thanked Tom Brady for going to him late in the game.

You saw the clip where Gronk approached Brady and said something and Brady took Gronk’s head in his hands and said, “You kidding me? Forever. Forever. You know that.” Gronk then said, “I appreciate it.” 

While there was some thought that Brady was referring to how long they were going to play, Gronk confirmed to our Phil Perry late in the week that the brief exchange was about Brady believing in Gronk late.

You and I would expect Brady to trust Gronk always. And Brady, clearly, felt the same way.

But Gronk -- who was uncommonly subdued after the game and didn’t speak to the media from the podium as he told me he would -- obviously wasn’t feeling the same certainty.

Gronk has really never felt certain about how long he’d be able to play. The specter of his body making that decision for him has been with him since he was a teenager. He’s had a bad ankle for a few weeks and now his back will keep him out of this one. The trade deadline approaches and -- for a guy who was on the block in April -- that also has to be in the back of his mind (although it’s unlikely any team would deal for him since he made clear he’s only playing with Brady).

Nobody knows better than Gronk that playing football “forever” isn’t a likely scenario.

* * * * *

It was jarring to hear Bill Belichick on Friday publicly lay the blame for three Chiefs touchdowns squarely at the feet of Devin McCourty.

Belichick will dress players down in front of the team, sure. But not from the podium. But McCourty -- who was in coverage on two (almost three) Colts touchdowns two weeks ago and another two last week when he was covering Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill -- wasn’t spared when it was mentioned to Belichick that McCourty seemed to be taking his performance hard.

“Devin's still -- he's one of our best players,” said Belichick. “We had three bad plays that cost us 21 points. Two on defense, one in the kicking game (a 97-yard fourth-quarter kickoff return). I mean there were plenty of other plays, too. But you throw 21 points up there on three plays; it's hard to have a good day when you do that.”

McCourty would be the first to admit that he hasn’t been terrific the past two weeks and he did so on Quick Slants after each of the last two games.

Belichick does nothing by happenstance. There was a reason that question wasn’t met with the standard, “We all have to play better. Coach better. Execute better . . . ” response.

It will be interesting to see how McCourty performs against the Bears who have a player similar to Hill -- Tarik Cohen -- at their disposal.

* * * * 

It was also amusing to see Belichick having no real desire to play along when asked at the outset of his Friday press conference about the Red Sox.

Q: How about those Red Sox?
BB: How about them?
Q: Any words of encouragement for them?
BB: I don't think they need any. Whatever they need to do, they can do. Hit, pitch, run, play defense, take pitches. They're good.
Q: Any message for Alex Cora? It was his birthday yesterday.
BB: Yeah, happy birthday.
Q: He turned 43 years old.
BB: He's doing pretty good.

It’s not Belichick’s job to pump the Red Sox’ tires. But he has in the past. So why not this time?

Could be he just didn’t feel like it. Or it could be that Red Sox owner John Henry also owns The Boston Globe, which last week dedicated a multipart series to the life, death and -- as it was framed in the stories -- exploitation of Aaron Hernandez.

Regardless of the quality of the reporting, suffice to say it’s not something the Patriots or Belichick would applaud as a journalistic triumph.

It’s been a longstanding lament in Foxboro that -- relative to the Red Sox -- the Globe gives the Patriots short shrift when it comes to coverage, story placement, tone, you name it.

No matter how many times certain Patriots walk across the outfield grass at Fenway on Opening Day with a Lombardi Trophy aloft, there’s an adversarial relationship between the two franchises.

Aside from that, Belichick has always been close with former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who took a thrashing from the Globe on his way out of town in 2011.

So maybe Belichick’s tepid Sox reaction isn’t really a big surprise. Or maybe he was just on to Chicago.


Aaron Rodgers describes how 'Belichick effect' has impacted the NFL

Aaron Rodgers describes how 'Belichick effect' has impacted the NFL

The Green Bay Packers are preparing for a battle the San Francisco 49ers on the NFL's championship Sunday. The two will square off in the NFC Championship for the right to advance to the Super Bowl.

While Aaron Rodgers and his teammates are doing what they can to be ready for the game, they still aren't exactly sure what to expect from the 49ers.

And Rodgers credited Bill Belichick's influence for that.

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Rodgers explained in a post-practice interview that not knowing what to expect from opposing defenses is something that has been popularized over the course of the past five years. And he called the defense's ability to change up week to week "the Belichick effect".

"I think that’s the NFL in the last five years, especially, it’s kind of the Belichick effect where teams are more reluctant to really try and scheme up opponents instead of relying on their base defense," Rodgers said to reporters.

"There’s less and less teams like the Lovie Smith Bears defenses over the years that say ‘Hey, screw it, we’re going to play four-man front, play Tampa-2 the entire game and make you go the whole field, and strip the ball and tackle securely and stop the run with a six-man, seven-man front.’

"There’s more teams that are scheming specifically up for teams. I think the tough part is it might be different than you saw on film. The drawback from that is a lot of these teams are used to playing coverages they’re not used to playing, they’re not super-comfortable playing, they don’t have a lot of reps in and that can cause some confusion at times."

Rodgers hit the nail on the head as the NFL's best defenses have become more versatile and game plan-dependent in recent seasons. Having multiple defensive looks is essential to success in the modern NFL and Belichick's ability to adjust week in and week out played a big role in kicking off the trend.

Though the Patriots won't have a chance to out scheme anyone on the defensive side of the ball until next season, they can be thankful that they have a forward-thinking coach at the helm. His ability to adjust on defense as well as Josh McDaniels' ability to change the Patriots offense look to match their best weapons have helped to make the team difficult to figure out.

And that's a big part of the reason that they have been able to make multiple deep postseason runs in recent seasons.

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Packers aiming to match rare playoff feat last accomplished by Patriots in 2001

Packers aiming to match rare playoff feat last accomplished by Patriots in 2001

The Green Bay Packers earned an impressive 13-3 record in the regular season, but they haven't always looked like an elite team.

The NFC North champs ranked 15th in points scored, 18th in yards gained and 18th in yards allowed. These numbers don't exactly jump off the page. The Packers also lacked a signature win, and with a chance to make a statement versus the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12, Green Bay was dominated in a 38-7 loss.

However, if veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads his team to an NFC Championship Game victory on the road against the 49ers on Sunday, the Packers will become the first team since the 2001 New England Patriots to reach the Super Bowl after being outgained in the regular season (h/t to NFL Media's Mike Giardi).

The Packers defense gave up 5,642 total yards, while their offense racked up 5,528 total yards, resulting in a difference of minus-114 yards through 16 regular-season games.

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This trend continued in last weekend's NFC Divisional Round matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers escaped with a 28-23 win at Lambeau Field, but the Seahawks outgained them by 31 yards. It also was the Packers' 10th game of the season decided by one score, and Green Bay owns a 9-1 mark in those matchups.

How have the Packers won so many games despite being outgained on a consistent basis? Well, it sure helps to have a quarterback as talented as Rodgers.

The future Hall of Famer sealed the Packers' victory last week with two clutch third-down conversions late in the fourth quarter. It wasn't an all-time performance from Rodgers, but when it's winning time, he usually steps up and makes a huge play. 

Rodgers' playoff experience and ability to come through in the clutch give the Packers an important advantage at the quarterback position entering Sunday's NFC title game. Oddsmakers, however, have still pegged the 49ers as an overwhelming betting favorite.