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Patriots' Gronkowski overcomes early drop with two TDs

Alge Crumpler looks back on some of the early-season video on Rob Gronkowski and laughs because the New England Patriots' rookie tight end isn't the same player anymore.

Gronkowski has worked feverishly to limit mistakes and improve his footwork to the point where he's developing into an elite level tight end. Sunday against his hometown Buffalo Bills, he made yet another encouraging step in his development.

The Williamsville North and Arizona product scored a pair of touchdowns on four receptions for 54 yards, both team-highs, in New England's 34-3 romp over the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"He's made drastic improvement and works exceptionally hard every day," said Crumpler, who is serving as a mentor to Gronkowski and fellow rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez. "The young fella? I can't say enough good things about him. He can run block, he can catch, he can do it all. He's a good tight end."

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 15 of 27 passes and looked for the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski a team-high seven times.

"He had a great day [Sunday] and he's had great days all season," Brady said. "He's been a great player for us."

There were plenty of eyes watching Gronkowski. A day after receiving a Christmas gift of boxer shorts and socks from his mother, Gronkowski gift-wrapped a nice present for his family.

"It was a lot of fun, being in front of my family especially because I've always wanted to play in front of them," he said. "I haven't played in front of my whole family like my mom and dad and my two brothers who could make it to the game. It was an awesome time."

Gronkowski provides evidence that the assembly-line mentality of the Patriots under coach Bill Belichick works. If a player like the underachieving Ben Watson doesn't pan out, New England drafts replacements like Gronkowski and Hernandez and everything keeps moving. New England won its eighth divisional title in 10 years Sunday and it doesn't take much for younger players such as Gronkowski to buy into the franchise's time-honored, winning philosophy.

"The rookies don't know anything so, really, what you tell them is what they believe," Brady said. "They don't look two weeks ahead, they're not smart enough or experienced enough to do that. It's like, 'Here's what you do,' and that's what they do. That's been the great part of having guys like Aaron and Rob and Devin [McCourty]. They just think this is the way it is. They listen to the veterans and they listen to the guys at their positions and listen to our coach."

Gronkowski's numbers are also proof of how the Patriots have gotten the tight ends more involved this season. Gronkowski and Hernandez, who didn't play on Sunday because of a hip injury, have combined for 81 catches and 15 TDs. Gronkowski has a team-high nine touchdown receptions.

"I think about when I was a rookie, how hard it was for me and to see Rob and what he's accomplished and to see Aaron and what he's accomplished it's so impressive because it's so hard," Brady said. "It's so hard to understand what it takes to be successful on this level. They're doing it and they have to keep doing it and they have a great role model in Alge at their position."

Gronkowski shook off an early miscue that would have rattled some rookies. On the Pats' first play from scrimmage, Gronkowski broke up the seam with linebacker Paul Posluszny in coverage. It was a sure touchdown. All he had to do was pull it in -- something he's done hundreds of times over the years -- and he scores against his hometown team. The ball was underthrown, and he dropped it.

"We didn't execute it all the way and that's what practice is for, we have to execute plays," he said. "We put that play in the past. It's just the first play of the game, there's 70 more plays in the game. That would have been awesome, but it didn't happen that way."

Gronkowski recovered early in the second quarter when he caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Brady. He caught another 8-yard scoring strike from Brady in the third quarter that gave New England a 31-3 lead. Shortly thereafter, CBS showed a clip of Gronkowski from his high school days but he's not that player anymore. He's better.

"The win is the most important thing, then on top of it I scored two touchdowns as a bonus," Gronkowski said. "It was fun."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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