Gronk in the Groove: It’s the Healthy Tight End’s Turn to Shine in the Postseason

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During this buildup to the fourth postseason meeting between the Patriots and Ravens since 2009, kernels of actual wisdom have been as scarce as editions of Vince Wilfork erotic fiction on Amazon.

That’s pretty scarce, I hope. Leaving it to you to check.

The gist of the conversation this week has really been one central point split two ways depending upon your media market or rooting interests.

If you are coming at it from the Baltimore side, you insist that the Ravens’ relative success against the Patriots in the postseason is a crucial and relevant factor Saturday.

(If you are coming at it from the Baltimore side, you also believe Ray Lewis was a breathtaking interpretive dancer, makes sense on television, and never owned a white suit in his life. Ravens fans are insane in all the wrong ways.)

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If you are coming at it from the New England side, you insist that the Ravens’ relative success against the Patriots in the postseason is ancient and irrelevant history, especially in the context of how drastically rosters can change from year-to-year-to-year in the NFL.

Leave it to Tom Brady to best summarize the polar-opposite perceptions and perspectives regarding the next chapter in this rivalry

“We can never change anything that’s happened in the past, nor can they,” said Brady during his weekly appearance on WEEI’s Dennis and Callahan Show Monday. “You can’t bring players out of retirement, they can’t either.”

The last three words of Brady’s quote — “they can’t either” — is as close he’ll come to tossing a barb in the direction of an opponent this time of year.

And you know what? It’s great. It’s a sign of confidence — something close observers have said the Patriots appear to have in abundance this week. It’s also the blunt truth.

Lewis is long gone, having moved on to a second career that has us seeking out the mute button like he used to seek out ball-carriers and camera time. So is the great and respected Ed Reed.

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There’s no Dennis Pitta, Anquan Boldin, or Ray Rice, who essentially put away that 2009 playoff game on the first play from scrimmage against the most derelict Patriots defense of the Belichick era. In football years, 2009 was so long ago that it might as well have been 1979. Hell, we thought Rice was a good guy and Roger Goodell was a promising commissioner then.

The 2014 Ravens are a good football team. The victory over the Steelers was as impressive as it was unexpected, at least to me. Joe Flacco is better than I’ve ever given him credit for before. John Harbaugh is the best coach in his family. Justin Forsett, the second-leading rusher in the AFC, was a find, and talent on the defense has been replenished around holdovers Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.

They’re good, and think they’re better than good, and that makes them capable of giving the Patriots a fight Saturday night. It could be tense. But in the rush to revisit history that matters very little if at all in how this game will be played and decided, there does seem to be this curious under-reporting of a couple of factors pointing in the Patriots’ favor.

I’ll give you three, with the third being the most important.

1. Why, if history matters, do so few mention the last time these two teams met. You know, when the Patriots won 41-7 in Week 16 last year in a game that mattered far more to the Ravens? Shouldn’t the most recent meeting be considered the most relevant?

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2. One of the prime reasons I believe the Patriots can claim that fourth Lombardi Trophy this year is because for the first time in — hell, maybe a decade — they have a defense that can win a playoff game when Brady and the offense aren’t at their sharpest. This could be this game, except the third factor makes me believe it won’t be.

3. Robert Paxton Gronkowski is healthy.

Am I alone in thinking — and recognizing, and believing — that Gronk’s healthy-at-last status this postseason hasn’t received enough attention? It’s had some, sure, because Gronk is impossible to overlook. . But it deserves more. He is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the NFL. An argument can be made — easily made — that no one in the history of the league has played the tight end position better.

Gronk had 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games this season — he was a healthy scratch for the finale against the Bills. Despite a deliberately gradual start to his season as he shook the rust off after knee surgery, it ended up being the second-most productive of his career, trailing only 2011.

That was a Gronk’s breakout season, the best a tight end has ever had: he had 90 grabs, 1,320 yards and 17 TDs in the regular season, then scored three touchdowns during a 10-catch performance against Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the divisional round.

But 2011 was also the year in which a cruel run of injuries began. In the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, safety Bernard Pollard encountered a rumbling Gronk.

Pollard, the same ligament-harvesting nemesis who caused Tom Brady’s 2008 knee injury and was lurking in the vicinity when Wes Welker blew out his knee in 2009, was smart enough to pass on an attempt to tackle Gronk high. That’s a surefire way for a safety to end up with cleat marks on his torso.

Instead, Pollard went low, a decision that worked out safely for him and devastated for the Patriots. Pollard rolled up the back of the tight end’s legs. Gronk suffered a high ankle sprain that relegated him to a decoy in Super Bowl XLVI. The Patriots lost, 21-17. Gronk had two catches for 26 yards — and a near-miss on a final-play Hail Mary.

Gronk would have surgery on the ankle in the offseason. It was the first of seven surgeries he would endure through the 2013 season.

In November 2012, Gronk broke his forearm while blocking the Colts’ Sergio Brown — a moment avenged with a memorable eviction “from the club” this year — on an extra-point play. He would return later in the season, but he’d re-injure the arm against the Texans in the playoffs. That injury and the complications from an infection ultimately required four operations, which cost him the first six games of the ’13 season.

But the most worrisome — and gruesome — injury came in Week 14 of the ’13 season, when then-Browns safety T.J. Ward plunged his helmet into Gronk’s knee. He screamed in such pain that the CBS microphones caught his horrified words. Worst fears were soon confirmed: he suffered a torn ACL and MCL, ending his season and putting his future in jeopardy.

Would he ever be the same? The answer came gradually over the course of this season, but we became certain it was in the affirmative in Week 5, when he had six catches for 100 yards in a season-defining 43-17 win over the Bengals. Three weeks later, Gronk had nine catches for 149 yards and three scores in a 43-21 destruction of the Bears. Hell, yeah, he was back. He had scars, but those powers remained intact.

As fun as he is to watch now and again, there is a certain lament attached to all of Gronk’s injuries through the years: Had he stayed healthy, would the Patriots have secured a fourth Lombardi Trophy?

It does not take any willing suspension of disbelief whatsoever to conclude that the Patriots would have beaten the Giants, probably easily, with a healthy Gronk. A just-a-guy linebacker named Chase Blackburn outmaneuvered Gronk to intercept a Brady pass in that game. Chase Blackburn does not do that against a healthy Gronk. No chance, Chase.

The rotten-luck recap: Gronk was injured late in the AFC title game in ’11, a win. In ’12, he missed the AFC title game, a loss to the Ravens. In ’13, he missed the AFC title game, a loss to the Broncos.

Now he’s healthy and ready to make up for lost time and opportunities. He’ll be as essential as ever against the Ravens, who are adequate in defending tight ends (20th in the NFL according to Football Outsiders, allowing a rough average of 7 catches for 50 yards) but stout in the red area, allowing just 23 touchdowns in 54 trips by the opposing offense.

I cannot help but believe that those statistics matter not at all. This is Gronk’s time, his turn to shine in the postseason, and no strong defensive back, semi-quick linebacker or any mix-and-match of coverage thereof is going to stop him.

Gronk’s still just 25, and as Pete Thamel told us with great flair and detail in Sports Illustrated this week, our favorite affable meathead is growing up, inasmuch as purchasing a party bus to keep the debauchery beyond the range of camera phones qualifies as maturing.

Gronk’s life is a joy. But this? This is business tinged with revenge, a chance to finally capture what injuries have kept out of reach.

He’s taking his career seriously, perhaps in part because too much of his career has been taken away already.

A party bus is great for the standard Gronk good times. But there’s no celebration like the one after winning a Super Bowl.

Phase One on that journey begins Saturday. The Patriots are wise to respect their opponent this week. But these aren’t the same old Ravens. And the repaired Gronk is as good as the old Gronk — or better than any tight end has ever been.

He’s been waiting for this, and he will be unleashed. The Ravens may not know it now, but they will Saturday.

They’re not going to be reliving history. They’ll become history. You might even say they are in for a Gronking to remember.

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