ATLANTA -- There is no way of knowing whether Rob Gronkowski played his final football game Sunday night in Super Bowl LIII. The decorated tight end said himself that he won't make that decision for another week or two. But if the Patriots' 13-3 victory over the Rams was the final chapter in his career, the nine-year veteran made it a memorable one.
With the outcome teetering in the balance, tied at 3 with under eight minutes to play, Gronkowski lined up in the left slot, ran deep down the seam and dove to pull in a 29-yard reception that set up the game's only touchdown, a 2-yard plunge by Sony Michel. Up to that point, the Patriots' offense had been struggling to finish drives. The unit had crossed mid-field on five of its first six possessions yet managed only a field goal, and New England's first three possessions of the second half went punt, punt, punt.
With just under 10 minutes to play, the Patriots took over at their 31-yard line. The sense of urgency could be seen in everyone's eyes in the huddle. On first down, Gronkowski faked a run block and beat linebacker Samson Ebukam on a wheel route down the right sideline for 18 yards. Then Tom Brady found Julian Edelman for 13 yards over the middle and Rex Burkhead for 7 more in the left flat.
While the gains were significant in and of themselves, the Patriots had started well on other possessions. Their focus now was on finishing, and as they prepared to line up on second-and-3 from the Rams' 31, Edelman turned to Gronkowski and asked the most productive tight end in NFL postseason history to do what he has done all his career: deliver in the clutch.
"Julian looked at me and said, 'We need another play out of you, Rob. We need another huge play,' " Gronkowski recalled after the game. "He had been making them all game. I had to step up. Tom threw that ball where it needed to be. I went and made the play. It was huge."
Of course, this was nothing new for Gronkowski, who ranks No. 1 all-time among tight ends in postseason catches (87), receiving yards (1,250) and receiving touchdowns (12). Two weeks ago, in the Patriots' 37-31 overtime win over the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, he set up a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of regulation with a 25-yard reception on third-and-5. Then, in overtime, he had a 15-yard gain on third-and-10 from the Chiefs' 30, helping position New England for the decisive touchdown.
The touchdown was critical because, under overtime rules, the Chiefs would have gotten a possession if the Patriots had failed to reach the end zone on their opening drive of the extra period. No one on New England's sideline wanted to see that happen because the Chiefs had scored on four of their five possessions in the fourth quarter, with league MVP QB Patrick Mahomes torching the defense at will.
The Patriots had run the same play two snaps earlier, with Gronkowski lining up on the right instead of the left. The ball went elsewhere, but there was a hole in the coverage that both Gronkowski and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spotted. So McDaniels came back to the play, only from the opposite side of the field.
"I knew it was going to come to me," said Gronkowski, who finished with six receptions for 87 yards. "Tom put it out there and I went and made a play."
Prior to that drive, the Rams had done a decent job of limiting Gronkowski. But great players have a way of elevating their play when the clock is winding down and the pressure is ratcheting up. Asked how Gronkowski was able to get free, linebacker Cory Littleton and cornerback Marcus Peters, who were the closest in coverage, ostensibly shook their heads.
"Mistakes," Littleton said. "We had adjustments, we were moving, and players were scattered all over the field. They capitalized on our mistakes."
"Perfect call," added Peters.
Gronkowski was almost understated when he met with the media afterward. Still in full uniform and pads, though partially covered by a World Champion T-shirt and hat, he repeatedly tried to shift the spotlight away from himself and on to his teammates.
"It was the most satisfying year I've been a part of, how we came together, the obstacles we had to overcome, the grind from the beginning of training camp until now," he said. "Just surreal. It was [a microcosm of] life; we went through life this year, and that's what life is about -- sticking together, and keep on going. That's what we did."
There's no way of knowing if Gronkowski will keep on going. His body has taken a tremendous beating over the last nine years. Even Sunday night, he took a huge shot on his quadriceps, the pain of which had not subsided by the end of the game. He has spoken in the past about retiring, which makes the question about his future even more relevant going forward. Not that he wanted any part of it.
"Tonight it's about celebrating with my teammates," he said. "That decision will be made in a week or two."
Minutes later, Gronkowski rose from his seat and slipped behind a dark curtain. Selfishly, I hoped it would not be the last time time I'd see him in uniform.