He's bigger and stronger and faster than anyone in the secondary, his hands a bear trap. This season he caught more touchdown passes—17—than any tight end before him, and after each one he spiked the ball harder than anyone before him. So it is tempting for opponents to think that the way to beat the top-seeded Patriots is to first shut down the uniquely gifted, 6'6", 265-pound Robert James Gronkowski. That notion is wrong. "We just have so many weapons on the team that you can't really focus on one person," Gronkowski says.
Some defenses allocated enough resources to slow the 22-year-old Gronkowski, but that generally resulted in more completions from Tom Brady to Wes Welker, the league leader in catches (122). On Dec. 18, the Broncos effectively limited both Gronkowski and Welker—they had a combined 94 yards, a season low—but No. 2 tight end Aaron Hernandez had nine catches for 129 yards in an 18-point blowout. In fact, three of Gronkowski's six most productive games came in New England's losses.
It was the Bills, back in Week 3, who devised the best blueprint for beating the Patriots. Buffalo did not undertake the fool's errand of trying to stop the unstoppable: Gronkowski and Welker combined for 24 catches, 326 yards and four touchdowns. The Bills focused instead on taking advantage of Brady's fearlessness in throwing over the middle by getting their hands into his passing lanes, forcing him into four interceptions, two of which came off tips or deflections. On offense they adopted the favored approach of nearly every New England opponent this season: tearing up the Patriots' patchwork secondary, a quarterback accelerant, which allowed 4,703 passing yards, 369 of which Ryan Fitzpatrick collected in Week 3.
In other words, Buffalo beat Bill Belichick at his own game. The Pats' coach found success this season by asking his defense only to play a strictly disciplined, no-home-runs style—for all the yards it allowed, it was a respectable 15th in points against (21.4 per game)—while his offense scored and scored and scored. It is a strategy that New England executed better than anyone else. However, as the Bills demonstrated, it is also a strategy that can be used to upset the Pats.
Combined receptions by New England's Rob Gronkowski (90) and Aaron Hernandez (79) in 2011, most by a pair of tight ends on the same team in a single season in NFL history.
Passing yards allowed by the Patriots' defense, second most in NFL history behind the Packers' 4,796, also this year. New England allowed nine quarterbacks to pass for 300 or more yards in 2011.
ON THE SPOT
The one consistently robust element of New England's defense has been its pass rush, with half of the Patriots' 40 sacks coming from Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, two free-agent ends who were deemed by most observers to be washed-up. The 32-year-old Carter, formerly of the Redskins, had a team-high 10 sacks through Week 15, but then his season ended with a torn left quad. That means the pass-rushing load now falls on the 6'4", 255-pound Anderson, who had 12 sacks as a Bears rookie in 2006 but only 13½ over the next four years, until rallying for 10 this season.
KEVIN HOFFMAN/US PRESSWIRE (GRONKOWSKI)
HONK FOR GRONK Gronkowski set the records tumbling this season—not just TDs but receiving yards by a tight end (1,327).
CHRIS SZAGOLA/CAL SPORT MEDIA (ANDERSON)