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Saturday, January 14, 2012
Another big effort for Gronkowski

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tears of joy streamed down the face of 49ers tight end Vernon Davis after he made the winning grab in the final moments of San Francisco's NFC divisional-round victory over New Orleans on Saturday afternoon.

And, believe it or not, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski can sort of relate.

OK, you'll probably never see tears in his eyes. Heck, you can barely wipe the grin off his face when he's making the football field his playground.

But after matching an NFL record by hauling in three of Tom Brady's six touchdown passes in New England's 45-10 thrashing of the Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional-round triumph at Gillette Stadium on Saturday evening, Gronkowski allowed himself to get swept up in his own emotions on the sideline in the game's final moments and was pinching himself ever-so-slightly about his latest milestone.

Living a dream?

"I was thinking about that, man, actually," Gronkowski said. "At the end of the game, I was like, 'This is crazy.' This is definitely like a dream come true. Playing in these games. I was watching Tom Brady, Deion Branch, Wes Welker growing up, and now being able to be part of the team with them, [leaves me awestruck at times]."

It's easy to forget sometimes, but Gronkowski was only 12 years old when Brady made his first appearance in the divisional playoffs with the infamous Snow Bowl/Tuck Rule game that celebrates its 10th anniversary this week.

Now in his second year in the league, Gronkowski, 22, already has etched his name to some astounding marks. The most noteworthy, of course, is the 17 touchdown catches he made during the 2011 regular season, shattering the NFL mark of 13 previously held by teary-eyed Davis (2009) and Antonio Gates (2004).

Things are supposed to get more difficult in the postseason. Fresh off a stellar rookie campaign, Gronkowski got bottled up by the Jets in last season's divisional round, settling for 65 yards on four catches in a 28-21 loss that spoiled New England's 14-2 campaign.

Despite his earning his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors after catching 90 passes (fifth best in the NFL) for 1,327 yards (sixth in the NFL) this season, it was fair to wonder whether he could parlay that success into the playoffs.

All Gronkowski did Saturday was catch more passes (10) for more yards (145) than Denver's much-ballyhooed quarterback, Tim Tebow, had completions (9) and passing yards (136).

Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski hauled in three TD passes, including this circus catch in the first quarter.

With the three scoring grabs, Gronkowski tied the NFL record for touchdown receptions in a single postseason game, matching a feat accomplished by 16 other players but only one other tight end (Oakland's Dave Casper on Dec. 24, 1977).

Coupled with the exploits of fellow second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez (4 catches for 45 yards, TD; 5 rushes for a team-high 61 yards, including a 43-yard jaunt), it left veteran offensive lineman Brian Waters, who played with one of the game's best tight ends in Tony Gonzalez during his time in Kansas City, gushing about the duo: "These two guys are changing the game."

Gronkowski most certainly changed Saturday's tilt.

His first touchdown, midway through the first quarter, featured a ridiculous degree of difficulty. Working against cornerback Andre' Goodman, Gronkowski made a rather improbable lunging grab on a 10-yard pass in the back left corner of the end zone, his outstretched hands somehow cradling the ball as he crashed to the ground.

As Brady raved, "That catch that Gronk made for a touchdown in the corner was one of the best catches I've ever seen. When you're making plays like that, it's really not about the defense, it's about making spectacular plays."

His other touchdown grabs will be left fighting for airtime on "SportsCenter," but they were no less important.

After the Broncos struck back to make it as much of a game as it would ever be (14-7 early in the second quarter), Gronkowski essentially posted up safety Chris Harris, who was giving up about 8 inches of height and had zero chance to stop what developed into a 12-yard touchdown grab. Harris was unable to trip up Gronkowski after he caught the ball near the end zone, pivoted and raced in for the score.

Gronkowski capped his stellar first half with a 19-yard touchdown haul after finding a soft spot among three Broncos defenders while running down the seam, putting the Patriots out front 35-7 at the intermission.

"Obviously, the No. 1 thing is getting the W and just helping out the team," he said. "It always feels good to help out the team. That's what you want to do; that's what players are here for. Everyone does their job and helps out the team -- no matter what your job is. It's awesome."

Not so much if you're a Broncos defensive back, but awesome for the Patriots and their fans.

The media horde around Gronkowski's locker after the game spilled into Hernandez's nearby stall. No. 81 playfully announced, "That's my boy!" as he tried to approach.

Later Hernandez expanded on Gronkowski, "That boy's a monster. He makes plays. And big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games."

Just don't expect any tears to fall after those big plays in big games. Gronkowski lets the opposition do that with his exploits.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.