Here's the scene: Week 9, late second quarter, on the shores of Lake Erie, the New England Patriots trail the Cleveland Browns 17-7, but Tom Brady has just driven the Patriots 61 yards to the Browns' 9-yard line.
You can see it all now, can't you? Brady will toss a touchdown. New England will exit for halftime trailing by three. And the second half will belong to the Patriots. On first and goal, Tom Terrific delivers a pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski. The big rookie is hit at the 2, covers the ball, lowers his shoulder, and fights for the end zone, determined to score.
In the second half, Cleveland scored three more times and never looked back for a 34-14 upset victory. Gronkowski spent the following week pondering his football future.
Rookies who make marker-event mistakes on Bill Belichick's team don't get too many chances at redemption. Fortunately, Gronkowski made the most of his last Sunday night in Pittsburgh in front of a national prime-time audience, catching five passes for 72 yards and three touchdowns as New England humbled the Steelers 39-26.
Talk about vindication.
Touchdown No. 1 occurred on the Patriots' first possession. Gronkowski was well-covered. Many NFL quarterbacks would not have thrown the ball. Brady might have had his doubts, but nonetheless drilled it through the smallest of windows. Gronkowski made the difficult catch look surprisingly simple, and New England never looked back.
On the Patriots' first possession of the second half, a Brady play-fake sucked Steelers defenders inside. Gronkowski was wide open in the flat. New England's only concern was whether the rookie would drop the ball in full view of a sellout crowd and millions more watching at home. Gronkowski made the routine catch and scored untouched for his second touchdown.
Gronkowski's third and final score came at a crucial juncture. With Pittsburgh trailing by 11 and threatening to seize the momentum, Brady stood tall against a Steelers blitz. Gronkowski ran to the corner against single coverage, achieving separation instantly -- so much so, that Brady took his time, feathered his touch and absorbed a big hit in the process. Looking over his shoulder into the lights, Gronkowski could see the ball coming a long, long time. A dropped ball would have brought on the field goal team for a 40-plus yard attempt. It might have opened the door for a Steelers comeback. It certainly would have undermined everything the young player had done to resurrect his rookie season.
Gronkowski made it look easy. Game over. This time, the 21-year-old's determination helped New England win a big game, rather than set the stage for defeat.
Some young players wait years for gridiron redemption and never achieve it. Rob Gronkowski needed just one week to make his life right again.