DENVER -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said he was forced to the sideline during Sunday's 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game due to cramps, but he still turned in a stellar performance in finishing with eight receptions for 144 yards and one touchdown.
"I was actually disappointed in myself at that moment. I don't know exactly why I was cramping," Gronkowski said after adding to his NFL record for most playoff touchdowns by a tight end (nine). "I prepared for this game like I have for every other game, with hydration and all that, but it just got to me. I had to fight through it."
Gronkowski had been charted on the field for every snap in the first half, but then he missed five-play and two-play stretches in the second half. He made two of the biggest plays in the game in the fourth quarter, when he hauled in a 40-yard catch on fourth-and-10 on the team's final drive and capped it off with a 4-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-goal.
"He made two great plays, split the defense. They were trying to double him," quarterback Tom Brady said. "And then the touchdown, I still don't know how he caught that ball. It was kind of retreat, retreat, I'm trying to buy time, and I saw him break out and let it go. He toughed it out all season. I'm proud of him. He's a great player."
Gronkowski's 52 career postseason receptions rank fifth in NFL history. He has scored in five straight postseason games. His 144 receiving yards marked the third-most in Patriots postseason history, behind his 145 against the Broncos on Jan. 12, 2012, and Deion Branch's 153 against Denver on Jan. 14, 2006.
Gronkowski said he drank a couple bottles of water on the sideline, which filled his stomach.
"As an athlete, you don't want that to happen," he said. "I'm definitely going to take that into consideration down the road, to make sure stuff like that doesn't happen again in games, but it just did this time. It was freaky that it did."
Gronkowski credited the Broncos' defense and pointed out that they jammed him more when he was aligned inside.
"It's not like we were going out there and playing some defense that has nobodies on it," he said. "They've got great players, and they just made more plays than us when they needed to."
But the Broncos couldn't corral Gronkowski on the touchdown catch, despite double coverage.
"They had a guy outside, a guy inside. [I] just made a move," he said. "I had a route to go either way, and when I saw the guy inside, the guy outside, I was just like, 'Screw it, I've got to go whatever way it is.' I went out, and Tom just threw it up. Had to go up and make a play."
In the end, the Patriots didn't make enough of them. Even so, that didn't stop Gronkowski from stepping back to look at the big picture.
"I'm proud of this team," he said. "Just throughout this whole season, throughout this whole game, you've got to be proud to be on this team. Everyone fought, everyone battled, and everyone gave it all they got."