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Gronkowski sets record for tight end receiving yardage

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / January 2, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Taking possession with a 28-point lead and just 90 seconds to play, the only thing between the Patriots and their eighth straight win - plus the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed - were a few kneel-downs from the victory formation.

But Jimmy Graham, playing in a game more than 1,000 miles away in New Orleans for the Saints, forced the Patriots to call an audible.

In a real-time, new-age version of scoreboard watching, a late 14-yard completion to Graham put the Saints’ tight end 5 yards ahead of Rob Gronkowski for receiving yards on the season. Knowing this, the Patriots opted to give Gronkowski one final chance to reclaim the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end in a season.

Instead of having backup quarterback Brian Hoyer take a few knees to end the game, the Patriots chose to run a first-down pass play for Gronkowski. One final throw, one final catch, and 22 yards later, Gronkowski had the mark, ending a back-and-forth battle that played out on two fields.

Gronkowski’s 108 yards yesterday on eight catches let him finish the season with 1,327 receiving yards. Graham had 97 yards in a win against the Panthers, and ended with 1,310. Both players eclipsed the record of 1,290, set by San Diego’s Kellen Winslow in 1980.

Thirty minutes after the Patriots’ 49-21 win over Buffalo, despite getting asked by a throng of media about the unusual circumstances that gave him the record, Gronkowski wasn’t completely convinced it was his.

“I’m not even sure. Did I break it? Over Graham?’’ Gronkowski quietly asked a Globe reporter. Informed that he had, the Pro Bowl selection had a simple response, served with a smile. “Nice.’’

The decision to throw the ball, with the Patriots up by four touchdowns and less than two minutes to play, had the blessing of coach Bill Belichick, who has historically dismissed any interest in, much less knowledge of, individual records.

“That last play, I had [offensive coordinator] Billy [O’Brien] call that because I wasn’t sure exactly where he was, and I thought he deserved another chance to go up and try to make another play,’’ Belichick said. “He’s had a great year and he’s worked hard. I thought he deserved that.’’

Gronkowski wasn’t about to say that he wasn’t aware that he had a chance at setting the record when the decision to throw it was made.

“Maybe,’’ he said slyly, when asked if he knew what the final catch was for. “Yeah, I mean obviously, why else would we call a play when we can kneel it? It’s kind of obvious, and I’m not going to lie about it. Yes, we knew.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s surreal that they even let me have that opportunity.’’

Tom Brady has completed 89 passes to Gronkowski this season. The only pass Gronkowski has caught from Hoyer will go down as the record-setter.

“I wasn’t sure how far he needed, but I knew that obviously he was going for the record. Everybody knew,’’ Hoyer said. “I told him he’ll remember me for the rest of his life.’’

Lost in the late-game drama with Graham was Gronkowski’s work from earlier in the day. He caught two touchdown passes, both significant. The first, with 1:32 left in the third quarter, gave the Patriots the lead after they fell behind, 21-0, in the first quarter. The second, which pushed the Patriots’ lead to 42-21 with 3:02 left in the game, was Brady’s 300th career touchdown pass.

With 18 touchdowns on the season, Gronkowski has the second-most in team history, behind only the 23 scored by Randy Moss in 2007.

“I don’t want to say unstoppable, but I feel like we’re confident when we’re clicking,’’ Gronkowski said of the offense. “Everyone playing well, everyone doing their own job. If everyone’s clicking together, you don’t know what can happen.’’

Nobody knew what was going to happen on the last possession, either. But one more pass sent Gronkowski’s way was safely hauled in, putting him alone at the top, with more receiving yards than any tight end who’s ever played.

Victory finally secured, Gronkowski was seen running off the field, helmet in his right hand, football in his left. The record-breaker?

“Yeah,’’ Gronkowski said. “They handed it to me when I was running off.’’

How many footballs has he kept this season?

“Just a couple,’’ he said. “I usually spike ’em.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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