ATLANTA -- If Super Bowl LIII was Rob Gronkowski’s final NFL game, the Western New York native went out in style Sunday night.
As confetti poured down, he waited with most of his New England Patriots teammates forming a human corridor for the relay team of ex-NFL players transporting the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the podium in front of one of the end zones at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The final leg was handled by Joe Namath, MVP of Super Bowl III.
Gronkowski leaned forward and gave the Tiffany hardware a big kiss.
He also spent an extra-long time exchanging hugs and shaking hands around the podium. He embraced his head coach, Bill Belichick, and his quarterback, Tom Brady. He had another hug for Jonathan Kraft, the Patriots’ president and son of team owner Robert Kraft. Then, the 6-foot-6 Gronkowski wrapped his large arms around 5-10 receiver Julian Edelman for what seemed an eternity before finally heading into the locker room.
“You relish these moments, you relish them all,” Gronkowski would tell reporters later. “You know how hard it is to get to the Super Bowl. We went three years in a row, we won two of the last three, we won three of the last five years.
“This is awesome to be part of this organization. I’m proud to be part of this team, I’m proud to be part of this organization. The guys, we stuck together and we did a great job tonight.”
A surprisingly dull, defensive-driven contest finally saw its breakthrough moment with just less than eight minutes left. That was when Gronkowski caught a 29-yard Tom Brady pass -- the game’s longest -- to set up the only touchdown in the Patriots’ 13-3 victory against the Los Angeles Rams.
The drive began with Brady connecting with the tight end for 18 yards to put the Patriots at midfield. Three plays later, on second-and-3 from the Rams’ 31, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called the same play.
“I saw the same coverage, the same play call, I just knew it was going to come to me,” Gronk said of the 29-yarder Brady delivered to him to the 2, from where rookie Sony Michel ran through the middle into the end zone to make it 10-3.
“Tom threw it to me and I had to make a play,” Gronkowski said. “I just come through whenever it needs (to be) that time. He knows to trust me and throw that ball, and I’m going to grab it. ... When it comes to crunch time, I always find a way.”
The win was the Patriots’ sixth in the Super Bowl and reinforced that the Belichick-Brady Dynasty doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon even if that was a common perception as the team -- and especially Brady and Gronkowski -- seemed to be uncharacteristically pedestrian during the regular season.
Brady has said he is going to keep playing. The question is, if the Patriot Dynasty continues, will it do so with Gronkowski?
All week, the speculation lingered. Would the Super Bowl be Gronkowski’s final NFL game? He estimated he had heard the question roughly 50 times. Each time, he refused to provide a definitive answer, which only kept alive the speculation that began when he dodged the question after the Super Bowl loss against Philadelphia last February and waited shortly before last year’s draft to inform the Patriots he was coming back.
The same was true after the game.
“Tonight it’s about celebrating with my teammates, and that decision will be made a week or two down the future, because tonight, that’s what it’s about, is celebrating with my teammates," he said. "That’s what I’m worried about tonight.”
Gronkowski, 29, seemed determined to push his aching body -- he had a slight limp after being hit by two defenders on a short catch -- and squeeze every ounce of whatever he could give to help the Patriots’ cause.
Especially when it counted the most.
“Gronk has always been that way whenever we need him to make a play, or whenever our team needs a play in a crunch situation, throw to 87,” receiver Chris Hogan said. “He came up huge for us.”
How his Super Bowl performance will factor into his decision is anyone’s guess. In a game when big plays were exceptionally hard to make, Gronk was the Patriots’ second-leading receiver with six catches for 87 yards. Edelman led the way for both teams with 10 catches for 141 yards to be named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
But for the most part, this game wasn’t about offensive play-making.
Hopefully, you enjoyed the commercials, because when it came to football action, Super Bowl LIII didn’t offer much. Unless, of course, you like watching defenses smother mostly inept offenses. Or if seeing punts gets you fired up. This game had 14 of them -- including one by the Rams that traveled 65 yards, 27 on a roll, to become the longest in Super Bowl history.
With the Patriots holding a 3-0 halftime lead, Super Bowl LIII held the dubious distinction of being the second-lowest-scoring first half in Super Bowl history. The lowest-scoring first half was in Super Bowl IX, when the Pittsburgh Steelers held a 2-0 lead on the way to a 16-6 victory against the Minnesota Vikings. The combined six points were the fewest through three quarters since IX, when the Steelers were up, 9-0.
That was in the mid-1970s, when offenses were supposedly less explosive than most of what we see in the league today. We certainly didn’t see it Sunday night, even though Brady and Jared Goff are the leaders of prolific offenses.
The Patriots skunked the Rams’ offense by playing primarily zone coverage and mixing actual pressure with simulated pressure. The Rams skunked the Patriots’ offense with a mixture of zone and man-to-man coverage.
Brady also seemed off-target. He set the tone for the game when his first pass, intended for Chris Hogan, was deflected by Nickell Robey-Coleman and intercepted by linebacker Cory Littleton.
For most of the first three quarters, the widely held belief before the game that the Patriots would be able to have a great deal of success running against a Rams defense that struggled in that area proved false. The Patriots finally were able to spring Michel free for a 19-yard gain late in the third quarter.
However, little of what happened Sunday night followed script, except Gronkowski's postgame comments. He stuck with mostly safe, Patriot-like answers, talking about this being the “biggest team Super Bowl win that I’ve ever been apart of.”
Is this the end? Perhaps in one or two weeks, Gronkowski will provide an answer. In the meantime, there is too much celebrating to do.
“This is unbelievable, this is amazing, this is surreal,” Gronkowski said. “Everything we’ve been through this season ... just unreal.”