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AFC Championship Game: Rob Gronkowski has vintage performance to help Patriots reach Super Bowl

Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots reacts after a

Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots reacts after a first down in the second half against the Chiefs during the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday in Kansas City, Mo. Credit: Getty Images/Jamie Squire

Rob Gronkowski helped create the hole that Rex Burkhead barreled through to send the Patriots to their third straight Super Bowl. But the big tight end did much more than block in New England’s biggest game of the season.

Gronk played like the old Gronk in the Patriots' 37-31 overtime victory over the Chiefs in Sunday night's AFC Championship Game.

“He was playing his butt off,” Tom Brady said. “He is out there, and whatever we ask him to do, he does with an enthusiasm about him. He is an incredible teammate and person. He is just a great man. Just so happy to have been able to play with him for as long as we have.”

The Patriots are going to need Gronk to be the old Gronk when they face the Rams in the Super Bowl in Atlanta on Feb. 3

Gronkowski did plenty of blocking — and took out guys — against the Chiefs, helping New England amass 176 yards on the ground and four rushing touchdowns. But Gronkowski also was Brady’s top target. That hasn’t been the case for much, if not all, of the season. Gronkowski was targeted only once in last week’s Divisional Round game against the Chargers. Brady targeted him a season-high 11 times Sunday.

When the Patriots needed a big play, or a third-down conversion, many times Brady looked to Gronkowski – and he came through. Gronkowski caught six passes for 79 yards, including two huge third-down conversions that set up the Patriots’ last two touchdowns.

Gronkowski caught a 25-yard fade on third-and-5 late in regulation that put the ball on the 4, and Burkhead ran it in. In overtime, Gronkowski caught a 15-yard pass on third-and-10 that put New England at the 15. Three plays later, Burkhead scored to send the Pats to their third consecutive Super Bowl.

“When it comes to those situations, you can put that ball up, I have to go and make the play,” Gronkowski said. “It’s crunch time or you’re done, you’re out of the playoffs. It’s huge. It’s the trust we have in each other. We love playing with each other, just the bond we have, just to always be on the same page when we need to be is huge.”

There have been reports that Gronkowski could hang up his cleats and retire after this season. Now the reality is his last game ever could be the Super Bowl.

But the fun-loving Gronkowski, and all of the Patriots, haven't been prone to look ahead. It’s about living in the moment, and that’s what he’s doing.

“The way the guys have been fighting all year long, the way we fought this game, I couldn't be more proud to be on this team,” Gronkowski said. “A victory on the road, AFC Championship Game, it was one of my sweeter victories, definitely, in my career."

Gronkowski hopes to have at least one more.

New York Sports