Gronk returns with career performance as Pats clinch AFC East


PITTSBURGH — All week, New England Patriots players talked about the energy that tight end Rob Gronkowski brought to the team upon his return after serving a one-week NFL suspension.

That energy carried right into Sunday’s AFC showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with Gronkowski turning in one of the best performances of his eight-year career in a stunning 27-24 victory.

Gronkowski had nine catches for 168 yards, with a two-point conversion, saving some of his best work for the team’s remarkable game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, in which he had receptions of 26, 26 and 17 yards.

It took a wild finish to seal the win, with the defense somehow holding on, but if not for Gronkowski where would the Patriots be?

They improve to 11-3 with the win, clinch the AFC East, and keep alive their hopes of home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs as they now own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers (11-3).

With home games to close out the season against the Bills and Jets, the Patriots — who looked vulnerable at various points of Sunday’s game — are now in the AFC driver’s seat.

And they very well could see the Steelers again, only the next time coming at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

A game between the AFC’s two top teams lived up to billing and came down — as Bill Belichick said it would earlier in the week — to the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

For a long stretch, it looked like the Patriots were cooked, their inability to get off the field on third down brewing into a big storyline. The Steelers owned third down and held a 35:07 to 24:53 time-of-possession edge in the game, keeping the ball away from Tom Brady and the New England offense.

But the Patriots came up with the stops in the clutch — and then found a way to recover from a near catastrophic breakdown on the Steelers’ final drive (with a call from referee Tony Corrente on replay review helping the cause) — to secure the result.

Gronkowski was immense, as he was Brady’s go-to guy on the final touchdown drive, which began at the New England 23-yard line with 2:06 remaining.

So Gronkowski is back, and so are the Patriots atop the AFC.

Just barely.

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