FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — By the time Rob Gronkowski caught a pass on Sunday, the crowd at Gillette Stadium went nuts.
It was only fitting.
Since 2010, Gronk has stolen the collective hearts of New England. This record-setting, Pro Bowl receiving, future Hall-of-Famer has turned into the best all-around tight end in NFL history. On Sunday, he may have played his last game at Gillette.
After contemplating retirement last offseason, Gronk has refused to talk about his future this season. According to the NFL Network, people around the 29-year-old expect Gronkowski to hang up his cleats after this season.
“I was focused on L.A. the whole game. It’ll be the same thing this week. I’m all in right now,” said Gronk when asked if he’d retire at the season’s end. “We’ve got the Kansas City Chiefs now. It’s going to be another week of preparation. I haven’t thought about anything like that. Just got to go all in, keep on focusing, keep on doing what we’ve got to do and I’ve got to keep on doing what I’ve got to do to help this team out to win next week.”
Gronk’s last game (or what could be his last game) inside Gillette didn’t fill up the stat sheet — one catch for 25 yards — but was a reminder of another part of his game that gets overlooked.
Along with being one of the best receiving tight ends, Gronkowski’s also a dominant blocker in the run game. On Sunday, Gronk had several solid blocks that helped spring the Patriots running backs. For example, he sealed off Chargers tight end Hunter Henry on a six-yard Rex Burkhead touchdown run in the second quarter.
“The run game is huge,” Gronkowski said when asked about his blocking skills. “It’s a huge asset of the game. It helps open the pass game. It helps open the receivers in the pass game, the running backs in the pass game. Just to be able to run the ball, be able to block, I’ve always never taken it for granted. I’ve always loved run blocking. I love to do the balance of both, but whatever I get asked to do… whether it’s run blocking, pass blocking, going out for a pass, I’m down to do.”
This season has been different for Gronkowski, who had low statistical output for his standards with 47 catches for 682 yards and three touchdowns. On Sunday, he caught just one pass, but when he made the catch and rumbled down the field, taking Chargers defenders with him, the Gillette Stadium crowd let him know they were there.
Perhaps for the last time.
“I always feel the love for the crowd,” Gronk said. “I didn’t have a lot of receptions, but I had one today and you could tell. It’s definitely great to get the love for them even in just the one catch.”
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore made few mistakes during the 2018 season. A career year led to his second Pro Bowl bid and a first-team All-Pro nod for the first time.
But on Sunday, things didn’t start out so hot.
At 4:56 of the first quarter, Gilmore was turned around on a Keenan Allen route. The mistake led to a 43-yard Chargers touchdown that tied the score.
“I was just trying to be a little too nosy. It happened. Got to forgot about it and got to make the next play,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore settled down and the Patriots’ defense reaped the benefits. Allen had just one more catch, and it wasn't on Gilmore, for the rest of the game. The Patriots’ No. 1 corner batted down one pass and intercepted Phillip Rivers in the fourth quarter to make amends for the early mistake.
“I had to make up for that," Gilmore said. "I was mad at myself.”
This season, Gilmore allowed just 42 percent of the passes thrown on him to be caught. He only allowed four touchdowns in 16 games after allowing two in the first three contests. He said he was able to lock Allen down on Sunday by getting physical with the receiver. He also made the Pro Bowl wide-out pay for trying to beat him with the same route.
The Patriots held a moment of silence before the game for Makenna Mebane, who died Jan. 3 as a result of a rare genetic condition on Jan. 3. She was seven weeks old. Makenna was the daughter of Chargers defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who rejoined his teammates Sunday after missing five of the past seven games. Mebane started and made six tackles.
“I gave him a big hug after the game,” defensive end Joey Bosa said of his teammate. “It was a tough moment. We were dealing with his stuff here, which we think is a big deal, and he’s dealing with real like problems and real issues.
“For him to come back and be a part of this team means so much to all of us and it means a lot to him, too.”