INDIANAPOLIS - The availability of a tight end generally isn't a subject that prompts a lot of chatter in the days leading up to a football game. But Rob Gronkowski isn't your run-of-the-mill tight end and Sunday's battle between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants isn't your run-of-the-mill football game.
Gronkowski, who suffered a high ankle sprain late in the third quarter of the Patriots' 23-20 win over Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, is a fairly important part of the Pats' offense. OK, he's a huge part. If Tom Brady is the Patriots' heart, Gronkowski is the liver and kidneys.
He had 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. Those last two numbers are NFL records for a tight end. Had another 15 catches for 232 yards and three TDs in the Patriots' two playoff wins.
So, if Gronkowski can't play Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI, or is able to play but ends up being largely ineffective, the Patriots' quest for their fourth Super Bowl title in 11 years is going to be extremely difficult. If not for the fact that they're quarterbacked by St. Thomas of Foxborough, I might even say damn near impossible.
A high ankle sprain generally is considered a 4-to-6-week injury, which means the chances of Gronkowski being anywhere close to 100 percent for the Super Bowl aren't good. He arrived in Indianapolis Sunday with his left foot still in a walking boot and didn't practice yesterday.
If this were a game in mid-November, he'd take the week off. And the week after that. But it's not.
It's the Super Bowl.
"This game is the biggest game you're going to play in in your life," Giants linebacker Mathias Kawanuka said. "So we're expecting him to be able to go out and give 100 percent. We're going to play him as if he hadn't had the injury."
Gronkowski and the Patriots' other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, have been nightmare matchups for opposing defenses this season. They combined for 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. The 6-6, 275-pound Gronkowski is too big and too strong for safeties to cover and too fast, as well as too big and too strong, for linebackers.
"They're both great tight ends and they bring different qualities to the table," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "Hernandez is more of a glorified wide receiver. Gronkowski, he just does it all. Great hands, great route-runner. Great catching ability. Most of all, he just finds a way to get open."
Rolle and the defense have been the major reason the Giants have gone from 7-7 underachievers to Super Bowl combatants. Since an ugly, 23-10 Week 15 loss to the Redskins, the Giants have reeled off five straight wins. In those five games, they allowed just seven touchdown passes, recorded 20 sacks and held opponents to a puny 5.8 yards per pass attempt.
The Patriots finished second in the league in total offense and third in scoring this season. But that was with a healthy and productive Gronkowski.
"Rob and Aaron have been a huge part of our offense and what we try to do," Brady said. "They're pretty much out there every down, both of them. Hopefully, Rob will be able to play. We'll see how he does. Nobody can really predict that. We're preparing for both [possibilities]. You have to prepare for every situation that might come up. You always have to have contingency plans."
Nobody's better at coming up with contingency plans than Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a.k.a. The Smartest Man In Football. He'll still have Hernandez and he'll still have Wes Welker, who caught a league-best 122 passes, and he'll still have dependable veteran Deion Branch. But if Gronkowski can't play or can't contribute, it will make things much easier for the Giants defense.
"I don't think you prepare any differently," Kiwanuka said. "You anticipate what they may do offensively if he's not in there. But that's about it."
Most teams generally try to jam both Gronkowski and Hernandez at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing between them and Brady. If Gronkowski plays Sunday, the Giants likely will focus on that even more and make him push off his injured ankle.
"You stay within the confines of the rules," Kiwanuka said. "But if you can get your hands on him and you know that he may not be able to stop and start as quickly, you've got to make sure you get a jam on him.
"That's going to be the game plan any time you play a team with good tight ends. But maybe you focus on it a little more Sunday. Nothing illegal. Just make sure you get your hands on him and try to make sure he doesn't have as big an effect on the outcome."