FOXBORO -- Now, there should be no doubt. No more talk of Jason Witten or Antonio Gates or Dallas Clark. The best tight end in the NFL right now is Rob Gronkowski.
In his second season in the NFL, the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder has overwhelmed the rest of the league with his size, speed and pass-catching ability. In Monday’s 34-3 win over the Chiefs (click here for the complete recap), the legend of Gronkowski continued to grow. He had four receptions (two of which went for touchdowns), 96 yards receiving and a pair of emphatic spikes, each of which were delivered as exclamation points on two extraordinary plays that ultimately ended up sealing Kansas City’s fate.
Gronkowski’s first score came late in the second quarter. On the play, his speed (and a deft play-action fake by quarterback Tom Brady) allowed him to gain separation from his defender, where he found himself wide-open in the middle of the field. After a catch and run, Gronkowski was knocked off balance momentarily by safety Kendrick Lewis, but he was able to regain his footing and stumble into the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown to give the Patriots a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
His second touchdown was more dramatic. After hauling in another pass from Brady early in the third quarter, he was knocked off his feet at the goal line by Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson. Hurtling through the air, he went flying backward into the end zone, landing on his head. He slowly rose to his feet like a punch-drunk fighter before woozily spiking the ball and easing his way back to the New England sideline, where the training staff checked him out.
After the game, he recalled the sideline exchange in typical Gronkian fashion.
“They were just asking me questions if I was fine and everything,” he said. “They kept asking me, and I started throwing out my own math problems. I was like, ‘Dude, I can count to 10.’ That was pretty easy, though, so they kept letting me play.”
It’s exchanges like that that make some believe he’s poised to become the heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon -- with the former Sox closer now decamped to Philly, Gronkowski is in line to become Boston’s resident goofball athlete ... who just happens to be one of the best in the world at his position.
“He doesn’t come across as a math major,” Brady said with a smile after the game, “but he can handle his own.”
But instead of being football’s answer to Papelbon, maybe Gronkowski is simply a latter-day Ditka: After all, with his two touchdowns against the Chiefs, Gronkowski now has 20 career touchdowns. (The most among all NFL tight ends since the start of last season.) He reached the mark in just 26 career games, the fewest games among tight ends in NFL history, breaking the mark of 31 … set by Ditka.
“They just told me that -- the Monday Night Football crew,” Gronkowski said after the game. “It just shows how hard our team is working. Everyone is doing their job, and I just happen to be the open guy and Tom hits me in the end zone. That’s all that’s going on.
“Everyone is helping me out to get better, and it’s great playing with everyone because everyone works hard and does their own job to help each other out.”
In the New England offense, it takes time to win the confidence and trust of the quarterback, but the chemistry between Brady and Gronkowski is rock-solid. Since the bye week (including Monday night, a four-game stretch), Gronkowski has been targeted 42 times. In that same stretch, no other receiver -- not even old reliables like Wes Welker or Deion Branch -- have broken 30 targets.
“He catches the ball great. He’s tough. He runs well. He blocks,” Brady said. “He really does everything you ask a tight end to do.”
Here are nine other things we learned Monday night at Gillette Stadium.
THE TROY BROWN AWARD FOR POSITIONAL VERSATILITY GOES TO JULIAN EDELMAN
The former college quarterback, who started as a wide receiver and has also returned both kicks and punts with the Patriots, saw some extended time at nickel back/linebacker Monday night against the Chiefs. (He played four snaps at the position last week against the Jets.) In addition, he worked as a return man against Kansas City, as well as on the coverage teams for New England. He ended up with one tackle (and drew a key holding call against Kansas City tight end Leonard Pope), but also provided a special teams spark with a 72-yard punt return in the third quarter to put the game out of reach for the Patriots. It was one of the more memorable nights of the season for any New England player, and if it wasn’t for Gronkowski’s performance, it would have likely been the story of the night.
By the numbers: (tie) Edelman’s punt return for a touchdown is the second punt return of his career for a touchdown. He became the fourth Patriots player with two or more punt returns for a touchdown, joining Troy Brown (three), Irving Fryar and Mike Haynes (two each). In addition, Edelman has now returned 44 punts for 603 yards during his Patriots’ career, and leads the franchise with a 13.7-yard average.
Money quote: “We’ve practiced the scheme, we’ve practiced everything and walked through it. We practiced it hard. In those meetings the coaches help us get in the right areas and make things more familiar. Jerod Mayo out there helping me out, all the guys helping me out -- Phil Adams, (Kyle) Arrington, (Antuwan) Molden, (James Ihedigbo) -- they’re all out there helping out. It was definitely a team effort getting me out there.” -- Edelman on feeling at home on defense (Edelman, who was speaking to the media for the first time since his October arrest, said he had been advised not to discuss the charges against him.)
ROMEO CRENNEL STILL KNOWS A THING OR TWO ABOUT GENERATING PRESSURE ON THE PATRIOTS
Crennel, who was New England’s defensive coordinator from 2001 through 2004, was able to create some schemes for the Chiefs that got some pressure on Brady on a consistent basis early on. Crennel dialed up plenty of blitzes against New England and as a result, the Chiefs sacked Brady three times in the first half. Tamba Hali, Amon Gordon and Wallace Gilberry each got to Brady once, with Gilberry getting a strip sack of Brady and forcing a turnover. The Patriots were able to solve whatever protection problems they had in the first half and managed to keep Brady upright over the third and fourth quarters. However, Brady’s final line (15-for-27 for 234 yards and two touchdowns) represented his third-worst output of the season, trailing only his performances against Oakland (16-for-30 for 226 yards) and Pittsburgh (24-for-35 for 198 yards). One thing that will bear watching going forward -- left tackle Matt Light was injured late in the game, and was seen after the game with a walking boot on his right foot.
By the numbers: Brady was sacked three times on Monday, and has now been sacked 19 times through 10 games. He’s on pace to be sacked more than 30 times -- the last time he was sacked more than 30 times was during the 2003-2004 season, when he was sacked 32 times.
Money quote: “I wouldn’t say it’s anything we haven’t seen before. They did a good job. They gave us a couple of different looks and they gave us a couple of strong-side blitzes with [cornerback Javier] Arenas and the linebacker over on that side. There were a couple of times where I think we had them blocked and we just didn’t block them. And there were a couple of other times where we missed the guy. ... Romeo does that; he does a good job of that. He does things that give you problems and he did that tonight.” -- Belichick on Kansas City’s defense
THE PATRIOTS CONTINUE TO BE SLOW STARTERS
New England continued a recent trend of slow starts with a sluggish beginning to Monday’s night game against the Chiefs, managing just 10 points over the first two quarters against Kansas City and going punt-punt-fumble-punt over its first four possessions. The Patriots didn’t even get into Chiefs’ territory until Kansas City botched an onside kick at the end of the first quarter, and didn’t engage in a sustained drive from their side of the field into the Chiefs side until late in the second when Brady hit Gronkowski with a 52-yard scoring strike to finally get New England on the board. The Patriots were able to turn it on and drop 24 points in the second half against the Chiefs, but the early struggles (which now date back to early October), have to be addressed going forward.
By the numbers: Including Monday night, the Patriots have now averaged 9.3 points over the first half of their last six games, including a high of 13 points (once against the Cowboys and once against the Jets) and a low of zero (against the Giants).
Money quote: “We just sucked in the first half. If you can’t complete a pass you’re not going to move the ball. You can’t run it, you can’t complete a pass. We just didn’t do anything.” -- Brady on New England’s slow start against the Chiefs
OF COURSE, THE PATRIOTS ALSO CONTINUE TO BE GOOD CLOSERS
As ineffective as the Patriots’ offense was in the first half, there was plenty to like about the second half, where New England had scoring drives of nine, nine and 14 plays, and really controlled the tempo of the game. A large part of that was because the Patriots played excellent complementary football in all three phases of the game in the third and fourth quarters. One scoring drive that ended in a touchdown began because New England had good field position after an Arrington interception. The Patriots got their first special teams touchdown of the year on Edelman’s return. And the two drives they had that ended in touchdowns (one nine plays, another one 14) were steady and consistent series’ where New England was able to keep the chains moving and chew up the clock.
By the numbers: As a team, the Patriots have scored 97 points in the fourth quarter, more than any other quarter this year. In addition, they have scored 165 points in the second half as opposed to 128 in the first half.
Money quote: “We played a little bit better. Obviously the first half we didn’t do anything. I don’t think it could have gotten much worse than what we did in the first half. But I thought we came out strong in the second half and took control in the third quarter.” -- Brady on the difference in the New England offense between the first and the second half on Monday night
KYLE ARRINGTON HAS A KNACK FOR BEING AROUND THE FOOTBALL
At the start of the season, if there was one New England defensive back that was a relatively safe bet to reach double digits in interceptions this season, it would have been second-year corner Devin McCourty. But through 10 games, Arrington has impressed with his physicality and ball skills, mixing both on the way to a league-leading seven interceptions. He picked off two more Monday night, with both of them coming on tipped balls. The first came with the Chiefs driving in New England territory, and just over two minutes left in the first half. On a tipped pass from Tyler Palko, he took it back 28 yards and set up a 21-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski shortly before the end of the half. The second one came with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter on a ball for Jonathan Baldwin, and set up another Gostkowski field goal (this one a 19-yarder).
By the numbers: It is the second time in his career that Arrington has had two picks in a game -- he had his first 2-interception game at Buffalo on Sept. 25. (The last Patriots player to lead the league in interceptions was Asante Samuel with 10 in 2006.)
Money quote: “It’s just being around the ball. You try to be a very opportunistic defense and when plays like that present themselves, you just capitalize on them. If I can get in the end zone one of these times, that’d be good too.” -- Arrington on bringing down tipped passes
EVEN IF WES WELKER IS QUIET, THE PATRIOTS ARE CAPABLE OF WINNING
It was a strange night for Welker, who wasn’t targeted by Brady until the quarterback threw a pass his way with 9:59 left in the fourth quarter, and didn’t catch his first pass of the night until he caught a short six-yarder with six minutes left in regulation. On the night, he ended up with two catches for 22 yards, easily his lowest output of the season. It didn’t appear that the Chiefs were doing anything exotic when it came to slowing him down -- he mainly faced a diet of single coverage against defensive backs Brandon Flowers or Brandon Carr. But in the end, the wide receiver finished with a very quiet evening.
By the numbers: Entering Monday night’s game, Wes Welker had never started a game for the Patriots and not caught a pass (a streak of 74 consecutive games, including the postseason). Welker has an overall streak of 88 straight regular-season games with at least one reception, including his time with the Dolphins. The last time that Welker did not catch a pass in a game was December 24, 2005 when he was with Miami.
Money quote: “I know about it, but it’s not my emphasis every time I step out there on the field. I’m just trying to go out there and catch balls and try and help the team win games.” -- Welker on his consecutive catch streak
ANDRE CARTER CONTINUES TO BUILD HIS REP AS ONE OF THE BETTER FREE AGENT SIGNINGS THE PATRIOTS HAVE HAD OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS
Fresh off his star turn last weekend against the Jets, it was more of the same for Carter Monday night. The defensive end was all over the field Monday night, coming away with seven tackles (three solo), as well as one-half a sack, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and one pass defensed. Carter was lost in the high-profile defensive signings of the offseason (Albert Haynesworth! Shaun Ellis!) and started the season as a part-time player, but he has since emerged as one of New England’s steadiest and most consistent performers on defense. Carter and fellow pass rusher Mark Anderson (who had 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits of his own against Kansas City) have played very well as of late, and will continue to be counted on down the stretch and into the postseason.
By the numbers: The Patriots defense held the Chiefs to just three points, setting a new season-best for fewest points allowed. The last time the Patriots held a team to three points or fewer was in a 34-3 victory at Buffalo on Dec. 26, 2010. In terms of yards allowed, the Chiefs gained 334 total net yards, which is the second lowest allowed by the Patriots this season, trailing only the 255 total net yards allowed to the New York Jets on Oct. 9.
Money quote: “Every week is always a transition. We always learn something new -- despite how successful you are, there are always things you consistently work on, whether it’s run fits on particular plays that we gave up or pass rushing techniques or coverage in the backfield. But I’m very proud of the great group of guys that we have here. We have a terrific unit despite the number of injuries that we’ve had. We’ve played with those. But every week, we constantly talk about what we need to do and go out there and try and execute to the best of our ability.” -- Carter on the New England defense
MARCUS CANNON COULD BE THE BEST STORY OF THE YEAR
Even though he was only on the field for a handful of snaps at the end of the game at right tackle, it was a great night of football for Cannon. The rookie out of TCU, who spent the bulk of the last six months consumed with his battle against non-Hodgkins lymphoma, was activated to the 53-man roster off the reserve/non-football injury list earlier this month, and saw his first action as a professional Monday against the Chiefs. Playing in relief of starter Sebastian Vollmer, he was in the game for much of the fourth quarter, and helped clear the way on New England’s final scoring drive of the night. It wasn’t much, but it was a pleasant final step in an eventful journey to the NFL.
By the numbers: Cannon is the fifth member of New England’s rookie class to see the field this season, behind Nate Solder, Ras-I Dowling, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
Money quote: “It’s good to have Marcus out on the field, period. He’s been out there for about a month now. He’s worked hard, and I’m glad he’s getting an opportunity to play. He’s got a long way to go, but he took a step tonight I think.” -- Belichick on Cannon’s performance Monday night
THE PATRIOTS RUNNING GAME SEEMS TO BE EVOLVING
Whether it’s because of a toe injury to BenJarvus Green-Ellis or simply a desire to start diversifying the running game, the Patriots’ have changed the way they’ve run the ball over the last few weeks. Last season and into this year, they were reliant on Green-Ellis, and the undrafted free agent responded, becoming just the 11th running back in team history to rush for more than 1,000 yards last season. But before Monday night, over last three weeks, he had just 69 yards as the New England running game turned to Danny Woodhead and rookie Stevan Ridley for support. While Green-Ellis had a sturdy 81 yards Monday night (his best outing since he rushed for a career-high 136 on October 9 against the Jets), there were more quality reps for Woodhead (5.4 yards a carry, and 19 carries the last three weeks, his most action since the start of the year) and rookie Shane Vereen (eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown).
By the numbers: The Patriots ran the ball 35 times, but had just one negative rushing play, a three-yard loss for Vereen off left tackle with 3:39 left in regulation.
Money quote: “I think anybody who’s played football this long is itching to get out there when they haven’t been out there for a while. So it was good to get out there. It was fun, I enjoyed it and it was a good team victory.” -- Vereen on his first extended action of the season (The rookie out of Cal been inactive for four games and dressed but didn’t play in two others. His only three snaps came in a Week 6 win over the Cowboys.)