- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn’t want to single out any players following his team’s 28-0 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon. “There were so many guys that contributed,” he said, but it was the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski that had Gillette Stadium buzzing on New England's opening drive.
After missing five games due to a broken forearm, the recently named Pro Bowl tight end returned to the field with a first-round bye in the playoffs for his team on the line.
“I was out there having a good time with teammates,” Gronkowski told a mass of media following the game. “It was a blast being back on the field. It was up to the coaches [and] the training staff how much I was going to play. They control everything, and I’m glad we got the win versus a good Miami Dolphins team overall. They have a good defense. I’m just glad to be back out with my team.”
Gronkowski said after the game he didn’t know when it was decided that he would return to action this week, as his status for Sunday remained unclear in the hours leading up to the game. But in his mind, he was preparing all week for a return.
“I just prepared all week thinking I was going to play, I really just didn’t get an answer like, ‘All right Rob, you’re ready to go,’” he said. “The doctors cleared me and everything, that was good. I was just preparing myself in my mind all week that I was going to play. Really it wasn’t when I got cleared, I was just preparing myself all week since Monday that I was going to come out here and play with my teammates.”
The Patriots wasted no time integrating Gronkowski back into the mix, as he was on the field for the very first offensive snap of the game, playing 25 of 80 snaps in total.
Being back on the field for meaningful playing time before the playoffs was important to the third-year tight end.
“It’s always important. I got limited reps, obviously, but you always want to get some reps before heading into the playoffs,” Gronkowski noted. “It’s good to get the speed down, the feel of the game. There’s practice and you can go hard, but that was game time. It was great to get some reps in, get the flow back into it, and be out there with your teammates and connect with some chemistry with your teammates.”
Gronkowski wasn’t the only one happy about his return, as fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez opened up about his return following the game.
“It’s good to have Gronk back,” Hernandez said. “His presence just helps us that much more. [We just have to] keep getting him healthy, get everyone going, get everyone healthy on this bye week and keep it rolling.”
Having Gronkowski back -- even in a limited role -- opened up space for the Patriots’ other receivers, according to Hernandez.
“You know when Gronk is on the field you’ve got to double him,” he said. “He’s too big and too athletic, so it opens up for me, Wes [Welker], [Brandon] Lloyd, Deion [Branch]. It’s just good to have him back, and he’s going to be even healthier come playoff time.”
Asked what having his full compliment of skill players on the field allows the offense to do, quarterback Tom Brady said, “Well, just to use their different skill sets. Those guys -- Gronk caught a big touchdown, Aaron caught some pretty critical first-down plays. Those are very flexible guys. Hooman [Michael Hoomanawanui] and Daniel [Fells] played a very big role, so all four tight ends played. The receivers all played. It was good to see.”
Perhaps no sight was more welcome for Patriots fans than a patented Gronkowski spike, which followed the hulking tight end’s fourth-quarter touchdown, his 11th this season.
The Brady-to-Gronkowski connection has proven to be nearly impossible to stop since the third-year tight end came into the league in 2010, and despite missing five games this season, Gronkowski still finished with more touchdown catches than any other tight end in 2012.
And while in many ways Gronkowski resembled his usual self, he was asked after the game whether he was favoring the forearm at all or protecting it from contact while blocking.
“I was just out there doing what I had to do,” he replied. “Just doing what the coaches asked.”
He said he was ready for the contact, welcoming his first hit back on the field.
“It felt good,” he said. “I haven’t been hit in a while. It’s been a couple weeks, about six weeks since I got him. It’s football, [you’re] always ready to get hit, always ready to get knocked down.
“You’ve just got to get back up and get back in the huddle,” Gronkowski continued. “It felt good to get back out there.”
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