For most of this season, coordinators have thrown conventional wisdom through the paper shredder to design a defensive scheme to double-team New England's Rob Gronkowski, with little success.
In just his second season as a pro, the Amherst native has already blossomed into one of the game's premier tight ends. Gronkowski's 15 touchdowns are an NFL record for his position in a single season, and he's also the league leader in receiving yards with 1,219, trailing only New Orleans' Jimmy Graham in receptions (91) by a tight end with 82.
Even Gronkowski didn't picture reaching rarified air this early in his career.
"Nothing this crazy," said Gronkowski, whose Patriots host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. "Definitely coming into the season you envision yourself having a good season, progressing from my rookie year and everything -- obviously, going out and hoping to catch a lot of balls, but everyone's just playing well together."
In an era where high-powered passing offenses are the trend, Gronkowski is one of several tight ends who are used more than a safety-valve option. Gronkowski and Graham, who leads the Saints in receptions, both rank among the league's top five in catches while Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez and Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew are in the top 10. Six tight ends have 70 receptions or more -- including New England's Aaron Hernandez -- and Tampa Bay's Kellen Winslow is close behind with 68.
"Around the league a lot of tight ends are catching a lot of balls, a lot of touchdowns and everything," Gronkowski said. "I think the tight ends are a big position in the game. I mean, if it's a check-down the QB can go right to the tight end or something. If the tight end is bigger than the linebackers, bigger than safeties and stuff, [there's an] advantage there, using your own body size to get open and everything. If you have a tight end it's definitely, I think, a big [advantage] to the game, to the offense and everything."
Getting double-teamed isn't easy for a tight end, even one such as Gronkowski, who's one of the fastest in the league. First, a linebacker pounds him, and if he gets by him a safety is waiting. It helps being a 6-foot-6, 265-pounder who runs a 4.65.
"He does a great job of using his body to create separation and putting his body between you and the football," Bills safety George Wilson said.
While he's received so much defensive attention, wide receiver Wes Welker has a career-best 1,518 receiving yards and has 116 receptions, eight shy from his personal high in catches.
"He's a solid player," New England coach Bill Belichick said about Gronkowski. "He does a good job blocking, good job in the passing game, pass protection, whatever we ask him to do. I think the most important thing isn't individual numbers but team success. Offensively, we've had decent production moving the ball and scoring points. Hopefully we can continue to do that. He's been a big part of it."
Belichick suggested Gronkowski will only improve. He missed an entire season at Arizona in 2009 after undergoing back surgery, and he spent his rookie season not only adjusting to the pro game, but returning to playing football.
"Doing all the little things, techniques, recognition, anticipation, seeing different schemes that affect him coverage-wise or different techniques the way guys try to play him because of his ability and make it hard for him, he's had to adjust to different things," Belichick said. "He's a real conscientious player, he works hard. He definitely understands what is happening and tries to make corrections and improve and is ready the second or third time around when he sees those things again. A lot of those things he just hasn't seen or he didn't see for a while and then his rookie year, but this year he's really been able to build on his rookie experiences."
Quarterback/wide receiver Brad Smith on Friday was officially ruled out for Sunday's game by Bills coach Chan Gailey. Gailey was holding out hope Smith would be available, but Smith has missed practice all week with a hamstring injury.
Left tackle Demetrius Bell (knee) and center Kraig Urbik (knee) are also out, while wide receiver Ruvell Martin (hamstring) and running back Johnny White (concussion) are probable.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady injured his left shoulder last Sunday and reportedly underwent X-rays that came back negative. When asked before Friday's practice what Brady was able to do during Thursday's session Belichick said, "play quarterback, the usual thing."
Bills running back C.J. Spiller and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees were named the FedEx Air & Ground NFL Players of the Week for games played Dec. 24-26. Spiller totaled 111 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in the Bills' 40-14 win over Denver.