All the build-up, all the chatter, all the wait mounted for a future Hall of Fame player on the New England Patriots ready to make his big return in a gaudy matchup with the Cleveland Browns. All along, another had patiently waited for this kind of moment to return to good feelings.
This was quarterback Tom Brady’s return game, but it was tight end Rob Gronkowski’s, too. The most lethal weapon in the NFL had suddenly been hard to notice while his quarterback served his suspension for the Deflategate saga. Through four games, Gronkowski played only two of them on the hamstring he was trying to rehabilitate, and as he ran short routes, stood back to block and recorded all of 1 catch for 11 yards entering Sunday, it was like he was out there but wasn’t, all at the same time.
As expected, having Brady back answered a few questions, such as what time and anger can accomplish when mixed together. It also answered what was really going on with Gronkowski. In truth, they were both waiting for a moment like this.
Their second play together went for a 19-yard connection, the old play-action seam route where even if the linebacker wanted to cover Gronk, he couldn’t. The sixth was even more of a bully move, with Gronk sliding across the field until Brady got him the ball in space and let him roll, which meant 34 yards through sliding tackles and flailing arms until he came up 2 yards short of the end zone.
This was Martellus Bennett’s day, too, but that had plenty to do with Gronkowski, as well. Bennett showed why the Patriots made a trade with the Chicago Bears this offseason to add a second Pro Bowl tight end: If it’s hard enough for defenses to cover one, what happens when they’re faced with two? The answer was 3 touchdowns for Bennett, a career-high, all after Gronkowski let it be known he was back and the defense overcompensated on coverage assignments no one linebacker or safety can handle.
New England’s 33-13 road pounding of the Browns was a mismatch in more ways than just the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski running up the seam. It was the class of the NFL against the only winless team left. It was a Hall of Fame quarterback against a rookie taken in the third round, and even that only lasted a couple series before Cody Kessler got injured. Then Charlie Whitehurst got hurt, and Terrelle Pryor was all the Browns had left.
Cleveland struggles to cover large bodies in the middle of the field, as Washington’s Jordan Reed discovered last week with 2 touchdown catches. Perhaps the only receiving tight end more talented than Reed is Gronkowski, so the result was what you’d expect.
But that was only if Gronkowski was Gronkowski again, rather than the shell of himself the Patriots saw the two previous weeks. The resounding answer is that he was, as he finished with 5 catches for 109 yards in his usual galloping, truck-stick style. Even more inspiring to the Patriots than how he looked was how he looked in tandem with Bennett, a schematic approach they’d been wanting to try ever since the days of Aaron Hernandez.
As Brady effectively worked deeper routes to Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman, he found consistent mismatches in different parts of the field for Bennett and Gronkowski. Brady finished 28 of 40 for 406 yards and 3 touchdowns. Eleven completions, 178 yards and all 3 scores went to his tight ends.
It was only one game against a winless Browns team, but it felt like the start of what the Patriots have been waiting for.