BOSTON (CBS) -- For the Patriots, it's pretty simple: If they are going to be anything this year, and if they are going to end up where they hope to be at season's end, they're going to need Rob Gronkowski to be Rob Gronkowski.
We all saw what the Patriots were without Gronkowski for the first six games of the season, and we saw what the Patriots were for two week as the All-Pro regained his footing.
But on Sunday, we saw what the Patriots can be when Gronkowski is operating at or near 100 percent, as they gained 610 yards and scored 55 points in their first explosive offensive showing of the season. The Steelers had never allowed that many yards or points in franchise history,
Aaron Dobson made headlines for 130 yards and two touchdowns, as did Danny Amendola for his 122 yards and a touchdown. Stevan Ridley was a star too, with 115 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Yet it was Gronkowski who led all receivers with 143 yards on nine receptions, and it was his dominance that helped open up the opportunity for the rest of the playmakers to make such an impact in the box score.
"When he's healthy and on the field, he's tough to stop," Tom Brady said after his best statistical performance of the season. "He's a great run blocker. What he does for us in the pass game, it's tough to match up. So if attention goes to Gronk with extra coverage, then it opens it up for all the other guys."
Gronkowski proved impossible to cover on his touchdown in the second quarter, when he jumped to catch the ball it its highest point, hauled it in and absorbed a big hit from flying safety Troy Polamalu. He once again was a menace in the end zone later in the second quarter, when Shamarko Thomas pulled the back of Gronkowski's jersey as he tried to make his second touchdown catch of the night. It drew a pass interference penalty, setting up the Patriots at the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Ridley was in the end zone for six.
Neither of those plays was the most important from Gronkowski. That one came early in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots leading 34-24. Facing a third-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 26-yard line, Gronkowski caught a pass from Brady about a yard shy of the first down markers. He was hit immediately, but he didn't go down, instead dragging Thomas for two yards. He picked up the first down, simultaneously fixing the team's issues on third down and in the red zone. The effort and power turned a field goal drive into a touchdown drive, and that three extra feet is often what makes the difference in a game remaining close or becoming a blowout.
"When we're clicking, we're clicking," Gronkowski said of the offense. "It's awesome."
When Gronkowski scored that touchdown, he repeated his touchdown celebration from his score last week, which ended up being negated by a penalty. Gronkowski looked around, as if seeking approval for his patented spike, before furiously smashing the helpless ball into the turf in celebration. Gronkowski's elation was temporarily put on hold though, as he once again saw the dreaded yellow flag lying on the field.
Gronkowski looked around, seemingly dejected that another touchdown was taken off the board, and another spike was rendered meaningless. But the fear was only brief, as the penalty was on Pittsburgh. The touchdown stood, but more importantly, with the fanfare of the pigskin's dull thud on the artificial turf, Gronkowski's return was complete. And as a result, the Patriots' offense is once again a force which will require the rest of the league to take notice.
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