ATLANTA — There’s a scene in the first “Avengers” when our heroes are in a fierce battle and pinned down just outside Union Station. They’re six against an invading army, and Captain America is scheming plans. He gives each Avenger instructions, and then he points to the team’s green behemoth.
“Hulk,” he says. “Smash.”
The Patriots weren’t exactly facing an overwhelming alien army Sunday night in Super Bowl LIII. The Rams’ offense presented about as much challenge as a gentle breeze. Even so, there came a moment about halfway through the fourth quarter, the score tied 3-3, when one of the Patriots’ resident Avengers called on another to step up. In the huddle, Julian Edelman looked at Rob Gronkowski.
“We need another one from you, bro,” Edelman said. “We need a huge play.”
On the very next play, Tom Brady lofted his finest pass of the night, a 29-yard dart that Gronkowski hauled in over the Rams’ Cory Littleton and Marcus Peters.
It was vintage Gronk, elevating higher than a man the size of a pickup truck should, cradling the ball with softer hands than you’d expect from a dude who’s probably crushed every beer can he’s emptied against his forehead. One play later, the Patriots were in the end zone, and the game against the punchless Rams was effectively over.
“It’s crunch time,” Gronkowski said. “I knew it was going to come to me. I just had a feeling.” He’d run the same route two plays before, and he knew that Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would spot the weaknesses in the coverage, and boom. Game freaking over.
“When it comes to crunch time,” Gronk grinned, “I always find a way.”
Gronk on this Super Bowl victory: “This one ranks at the top. Just like the other ones.” pic.twitter.com/rRCadTlN6V
— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) February 4, 2019
If this was the final catch of Gronkowski’s career — and it may very well be — it was a hell of a way to go out. Gronkowski had six catches for 87 yards Sunday night, an unexpected bounceback from a guy who’d spent most of the year injured and/or ineffective. And if it was Gronk’s swan song — or, in Gronk terms, the Ultimo Bitchin Last Party Before We Graduate, Dude — it was one hell of a way to go.
“He’s a playmaker, he’s always been that,” Chris Hogan said. “That was one of our biggest plays of the game.”
Littleton tried to brush it off, noting, “It was a big play, but at the end of the day we were still in the game. It didn’t matter, we had to keep playing.”
Afterward, Gronkowski didn’t make some ceremonial “this is my last game” declaration at the podium. That would have been putting self before team, and though there is indeed an “I” in “Patriots,” there’s no “G.” Besides, we know that Gronkowski’s going to make his retirement announcement something special, like riding a jet-ski while sporting an American flag banana hammock and a three-brewski buzz.
But when he does go — and the news could come as soon as a week from now, after one more beer-soaked duck boat ride through the streets of Boston — he’ll leave behind a heartbroken city and some deeply devoted teammates. A Gronk-shaped hole in a team is a hell of a thing to fill.
“He’s an awesome player, great teammate, friend, and just so proud of everything he’s done for our team,” Brady said afterward. “He just had an incredible game.”
That was the well-behaved news conference version of Brady. The more honest one came as he was leaving his own news conference and happened to pass by Gronk’s.
“Tell ‘em, Beast Mode,” Brady bellowed as Gronk nodded at his quarterback. “You know we stick together. Always.” At least for now, anyway.
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• National anthem performance sparks different controversy
• Grading the best and worst Super Bowl ads