Adam Kaufman

The Morning After: Rob Gronkowski Brings the Beast to Bury the Bears

Earlier this month, after Rob Gronkowski enjoyed his best game of the year with six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown in a 41-14 rout of the Bengals, many of us started to wonder if the Patriots tight end was back to being his old self after off-season knee surgery. For the most part, the opinion was, “He looks like he’s getting there, but not quite yet.”

That performance was followed by a couple of quieter games in a pair of division wins over the Bills and Jets, in which the still-recovering veteran combined for a still solid 12 receptions on 18 targets for 162 yards.

Then there was Sunday, where Gronkowski spent the bulk of his time on the field being covered by Bears safety Ryan Mundy. With the hulking tight end around, the latter was anything but safe. Probably felt more like a case of the Mondays had come early.

In the Pats' first of what’s assumed to be a grueling six-game, seven-week stretch, the opener was a complete and utter embarrassment for the opposition. New England ousted Chicago 51-23 behind a career-day from Gronkowski, complete with nine catches on as many targets for a team-high 149 yards, and he matched a personal-best with three touchdowns. It was his 13th career multi-TD game, passing Calvin Johnson for most in the NFL since 2010.

If you watched the first-half and then quit to catch up on your weekend cleaning with the Patriots ahead 38-7, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, that’s it?”

Who knows what Gronkowski could have achieved had he played the whole game, considering he’d caught eight balls for 103 yards (marking his 14th 100-yard game) and two scores by the break. But, early in the third quarter, he left shortly after his third TD of the day – his final reception, for 46 yards – to head to the locker room with a member of the team’s training staff.

Knee? Forearm? Back?

No need for a heart-attack, fans. It was dehydration. That’s what happens when you’re running away from Bears all day.

So, eight weeks into New England’s 6-2 season and not even 11 months removed from ACL and MCL tears, is Rob Gronkowski back?

Who better to answer that question than blockbuster standout John Wick? (Start at :41 if you’re impatient.)

The biggest difference, of course, is Gronkowski is a far better performer than Keanu Reeves.

Before the fifth-year pro cut his afternoon short, we saw all the speed, agility, mobility, and physicality we’ve come to depend on when there’s a healthy Gronkowski on the field.

This shellacking, though, was a total team-effort.

With great protection from the offensive line once again, Tom Brady completed a staggering 30-of-35 passes for 354 yards and five touchdowns, one short a career-high, to account for a 148.4 QB rating. Of the quarterback’s five incompletions, four were drops. Once the game was in hand and then some, even Brady agreed to sit on the sidelines so Jimmy Garoppolo could get some reps. Wouldn’t you know, the rookie went 3-for-3 for 22 yards.

Gronkowski accounted for the majority of Brady’s production, but it was close. First-year Patriot and new Brady-favorite Brandon LaFell caught a career-high 11 balls on 11 targets for 124 yards and a score, while Gronkowski’s fellow tight end Tim Wright added seven receptions, 61 yards, and a touchdown. Shane Vereen also had a few grabs out of the backfield and, in the ultimate upset, Danny Amendola had twice as many catches as Julian Edelman (2 vs. 1).

Balance was also key, as the New England running game produced 122 yards, including 86 from former practice squad back Jonas Gray on 17 carries. Gray’s 30 yards downfield on the Pats’ opening drive were crucial to Brady getting in position to find Gronkowski from six yards out for their first hook-up of the day.

At the time, that was the 46th time Brady and Gronkowski collaborated for an end zone celebration, the second-most QB-to-TE touchdown passes of all-time (Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates hold the record with 69) and the most a quarterback and pass-catcher have met for a TD in team history. Move aside, Drew Bledsoe and Ben Coates.

“We did an excellent job as an offense overall, executing out there, making plays,” said a proud Gronkowski. “Everyone contributed, got first downs, yards, touchdowns, so it was a great team win overall.”

It was a well-executed, well-rounded beat-down of historic proportions.

The Bears have never allowed more than 55 points in a game. They should be thankful Gronkowski and Brady left early.

As good as the QB was, his tight end deserved the game-ball. Gronkowski kept the chains moving, and used every bit of his 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame to do so.

Brady looked to Gronkowski four times on third-down – from 3, 4, 14, and 18 yards – and each time saw a completion. Only 39 yards were necessary on those throws, but they resulted in 52 and one spike of the football.

"He's a man amongst boys," Darrelle Revis said after the win, noting his teammate’s skill and stature.

Gronkowski spent the day running through, over, and around defenders and, most impressive, made it look easy as he chewed up and tossed aside Mundy and others en route to the Pats’ fourth straight victory.

"That's what he's been since he joined our team, fortunately for us," added Brady. "He's a tough matchup. He's big, fast, strong, and when he plays like beast mode, he's tough to stop."

“It’s just about being a big guy,” explained Gronkowski. “Obviously I’m not as fast as the [defensive backs] and the safeties, and some of the linebackers are really fast, too. I just have to use my body as leverage to out-fight big guys and use it like a basketball move to box-out. I’m just using the body to get open.”

Provided Gronkowski truly has returned to form, New England’s recent point-totals of 43, 37, 27, and 51 – an average of 39.5 points per game in October – shouldn’t come as a great shock.

Remember when the former second-round pick returned from back and forearm injuries in Week 7 last season? Through six games, the Patriots had averaged 20.8 points. Over the next seven contests, before Gronkowski suffered his season-ending knee tears against Cleveland, that average skyrocketed to 32 points a game. During that span, the Pats scored the most points in the NFL, even more than their rivals in Denver.

That’s the impact of Gronkowski.

Reasonable expectations, be damned. As you can see, through eight games in 2014, the numbers are almost identical. If he stays healthy, Gronkowski will likely have his first 1,000-yard season since 2011. In other words, he’s proving superhuman.

Except for that whole dehydration thing.

In typical Gronk form, he told reporters after the win that, while he could have returned to the game, it was important for him to go to the room, get some fluids in him, and “keep on drinking” to avoid future problems.

Odds are the party-loving 25-year-old kept on drinking right into the night.

Good for him. Good for his teammates. Good for Belichick and the Krafts.

Gronkowski and Brady set the tone in their team’s thrashing of the Bears. A week-and-change after looking so pedestrian in their 27-25 survival of the Jets, the Patriots played with attitude and anger.

When the Pats concluded September on the wrong end of a 41-14 sleeper in Kansas City, their critics, many in the media, and even some spoiled-rotten fans left them for dead. Trust me, I know a guy.

They’d come alive entering the Bears match-up but, in the process, lost key personnel like Jerod Mayo, Stevan Ridley, and maybe Chandler Jones for the season. Surely those injuries would spell the end.

Then they began their toughest stretch of the year like they were facing a college team.

The Patriots should have beaten the Bears, but achieving the feat in such an all-around demolishing fashion was a giant “F-U” to each one of us who casts doubt on the men who call Gillette home. When we pick the Broncos to beat them next weekend, they’ll try to send that message once more, but even louder and against a Super Bowl favorite in order to prove they, too, are contenders.

On Sunday, Gronkowski was the postman. You can bet he’s got a thirst to do it again.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman and email me here.

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