KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Rob Gronkowski wasn’t lamenting the single target he received in the Patriots’ divisional win, or the four straight games he’d topped at 25 yards entering Sunday after notching 107 yards and a touchdown on eight catches in New England’s 34-33 loss to Miami early December.
The Patriots tight end wasn’t lamenting, either, the two interceptions Tom Brady threw on targets to him in a 37-31 win to send New England back to its third straight Super Bowl and ninth since 2001. Both passes targeted Gronkowski.
No, Gronkowski, who caught six of 11 targets for 79 yards in the Patriots’ win, explained his last two months thusly.
“It’s just basically what the doctor orders,” he laughed about head coach Bill Belichick and Brady’s regularly changing game plans, which heavily featured their 10-year tight end on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium. “Or what the coach orders — coach/doctor orders. Whatever it is. I have to block. I have to receive. It’s critical.
“I’ve just been fighting all year long so when situations come like this, I’m ready to go.”
And ready Gronkowski looked to start and end the game. He was ready for passes up the middle and right for 13 and 6 yards to extend the Patriots’ game-opening drive. The 8:05-long clock gobbler resulted in running back Sony Michel’s 1-yard score.
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The Chiefs wouldn’t join New England on the board for another 23 minutes and 59 seconds as the Patriots executed a literally perfect balance of 146 yards rushing, 146 passing in the first half to mount a 14-point lead. Gronkowski joined running backs Sony Michel (75 first-half yards) and James White (64) to vary the attack in that lead.
“We want to get the ball in their hands when our run game is clicking like that,” receiver Chris Hogan told USA TODAY Sports. “It only helps open things up in the pass game [and] further opens up things in the middle of the field. It complements one another.”
Gronkowski was quieter the next two quarters in that complement. But like during the Patriots’ 2018 season, when he missed three games midseason battling back and ankle injuries, the tight end would reappear late.
Forget the end-zone target early in the second quarter that Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland picked off (the Chiefs wasted it with a three-and-out). Forget the five next passes from Brady to Gronkowski, the longtime teammates connecting on just one.
And then another Gronkowski target that brushed his fingers, landed in the hands of Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward and then became moot when Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford was ruled offsides to negate the whole play.
If you can get past all that — and Belichick and Brady, the doctors ordering in this, could — you can set up Gronkowski for the late-game heroics. It was his 25-yard reception on third-and-5 with 54 seconds left in regulation that set up Rex Burkhead’s 4-yard score, a 31-28 Patriots lead the Chiefs would tie but never regain.
It was Gronkowski’s 15-yard catch, after 15- and 20-yard connections to Edelman, on which Brady capped off his passing day before ceding way to a fourth rushing touchdown that sealed New England’s AFC title.
“It ain’t sink in yet,” rookie running back Sony Michel said after contributing 113 yards and two scores to reach a Super Bowl in his first year as a pro. “It’s a surreal feeling, amazing feeling right now.
“I’m sure sooner or later it’s going to sink in.”
Defensive end Trey Flowers fawningly clutched a shining AFC championship trophy handed to him mid-interview, confirming to reporters, “I think this is the third one I done held.” Safety Duron Harmon smiled through hoarse responses, insisting his voice was intact during the game. What happened to it?
“Winning,” Harmon said. “It (losing my voice) really happened at the end, just excited celebrating.”
Brady, in praising running backs who each “ran his butt off,” explained his reaction to the rollercoaster.
“I have been swearing too much the last 30 minutes,” Brady said. “So I am trying to cut back for a little bit.”
But first, one more PG-ed praise for what Brady called Gronkowski’s “huge” day.
“He was playing his butt off,” Brady said. “He has done that all year. He is out there and, and whatever we ask him to do, he does with an enthusiasm about him.
“The kind of guy he is — I know everyone doesn’t know him personally — but he is just a great man. Just so happy to be able to play with him for as long as we have.”
Gronkowski praised their bond in return. Then he put into perspective his season-high 11 targets and the day he became the first NFL tight end ever to top 1,000 postseason receiving yards.
“It was one of the sweeter victories, definitely, in my career,” Gronkowski said.
Just like the doctor ordered.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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