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Gronkowski back to his old self after injury-laden season with Patriots

In an eight-year career mired with injuries, 2016 was one of the worst yet for New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

He started the season with a hamstring issue, holding him out of the first two games. He was knocked out again seven weeks after his 2016 debut, this time with a pulmonary contusion to his lung caused by a hit from Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

Gronkowski only missed one game with that injury, but after suiting up against the New York Jets on Nov. 27, he was diagnosed with a ruptured disk in his back suffered in the Seahawks game. He required surgery, ending his season with eight games under his belt.

The three injuries were a bad sign for a player who'd already sprained his ankle and knee, broken his forearm twice and suffered a herniated disk. No one knows the fleeting nature of the NFL better than Gronkowski.

"It can just take one solid hit and it can throw off your whole body," Gronkowski said.

With the numbers he's accumulated since his return, it's safe to say he's overcome a severe injury again. He has 702 yards and seven touchdowns through 10 games, on pace for about 100 yards less than his last two full seasons. He's only missed one game, sitting out against Tampa Bay Week Five with a thigh injury.

"I'm just trying to be ready for every single game," Gronkowski said. "It's the NFL. You get bumps and bruises every single week. You've just got to put in the time, put in the work to make sure you're ready to roll every week."

In addition to his play, the mantra of same old Gronkowski extends to his fun-loving personality. Wednesday he walked around the Patriots locker room in a large winter coat, shorts and flip-flops, telling reporters, “I’m fresh. Report that. I’m fresh."

In last week's game against Miami he let teammate Brandin Cooks climb on his back and pretend to ride him like a horse after Cooks scored a touchdown. In his postgame press conference he said he wanted to talk about the celebration, but Patriots players were told not to.

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Giving Cooks a lift wasn't Gronkowski's only contribution last week. He snagged five catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns against the Dolphins, breaking a Patriots record with his 16th career multi-touchdown game. Barring another injury, he should record double-digit touchdowns for the sixth time.

"I don’t know if anybody has ever stopped him," Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott said.

The Bills certainly haven't in the 11 times they've faced the Amherst native. He's averaged nearly 74 yards and a touchdown per game.

The fervor that was there in Gronkowski's first trip back to Buffalo has decreased. He doesn't get asked for as many tickets by family and friends as he did at the start of his career, but he said playing in his hometown is still a special experience.

"That's like a dream, to even play in the stadium that you drove by growing up as a kid," Gronkowski said. "Going back, it's always a good feeling."

A trip home also means a cheat day on his diet to have chicken wings. He said he wants to stop at Duff's Famous Wings because he's surprisingly never been before.

"I usually go to Amherst Ale House," Gronkowski said. "Anywhere in Buffalo, you can go at the corner store and they've got good wings and good blue cheese. The blue cheese is crucial."

From a Bills perspective, halting Gronkowski's production completely Sunday may be unrealistic, but Buffalo showed last week they can slow down elite tight ends. Kansas City's Travis Kelce, first among tight ends in yardage this season, had no catches in the first half against the Bills. He finished with 39 yards on three receptions, 31 yards fewer than his season average.

Facing Kelce gives the Bills some experience covering players like Gronkowski, but McDermott said it's difficult to take solace in playing two top-notch talents in row.

"Yeah, when you find the benefit, let me know," McDermott joked.

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