KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There was a time when Tom Brady knew he could count on Rob Gronkowski to make a third-down catch in a huge spot, and that time again came Sunday in the final minute of the fourth quarter, then again in overtime of the Patriots’ 37-31 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC championship game.

And that time just might come again Feb. 3 in the Super Bowl.

Whether Gronkowski continues his career next season isn’t relevant at the moment. Players from teams whose seasons end think about next year. Gronk and the Patriots are playing in the moment and playing in typical fashion in the biggest moments.

On third-and-5, Brady connected with Gronkowski for a 25-yard gain to the 4 late in the fourth quarter, setting up Rex Burkhead’s go-ahead score with 42 seconds left.

On third-and-10 in overtime, Brady again dialed up Gronk, this time for a 15-yard gain to the 15 on a drive that ended with Burkhead scoring the winner on a 2-yard run.

Gronkowski had six catches for 79 yards and was targeted a season-high 11 times, one week after being targeted once against the Chargers, his role primarily to block for Sony Michel.

“I couldn’t be more proud to be on this team, more proud to be out there with the poise, how hard we fought, defense, offense, special teams, victory on the road in the AFC championship game,” Gronkowski said. “It was one of my sweeter victories, definitely, in my career.”

Brady has stayed in Gronkowski’s corner through the ups and downs of a year that included Gronkowski missing three games with injuries.

“He was playing his butt off and he’s done that all year,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “Whatever we ask him to do he does with enthusiasm about him. He’s an incredible teammate and person, the kind of guy he is. I know everyone doesn’t know him personally but he’s a great man. I’m so happy I’ve been able to play with him as long as we have.”

Gronkowski had not been a big part of the passing game in recent weeks. He combined for just five catches in the four games leading into the rematch with the Chiefs. He had two huge late catches in the regular-season 43-40 victory against the Chiefs as well.

“You have to have confidence in each other,” Gronkowski said. “That’s what practice is all about, knowing when it comes to those situations, you can put that ball up, I have to go and make the play. 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.”

Gronkowski made several references to the Patriots’ “conditioning levels.” His offense did seem to have more fuel in overtime than the defense it tore through.

“We’re going to the Super Bowl and I wouldn’t say it’s a fluke, either,” Gronkowski said. “The way we put in the work, the way we drive, the way everyone stays together, the kind of fight we have, it showed in this game. We keep on battling no matter what the situations are and no matter what we’re dealing with. We just play for each other as teammates.”

On a night the defense shut out the Chiefs in the first half, limiting them to 32 yards, Brady needed to produce yet another big finish to counteract Patrick Mahomes, who awakened for his second 31-point second half of the season against the Patriots.

“You never want a game to come down to those situations but you’re always comfortable with Tom,” Gronkowski said. “He’s always prepared. He’s always ready for his moments. That’s why he’s the greatest quarterback, hands down.

“It was an awesome team win and it’s just awesome to be going to the Super Bowl three years in a row.”


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