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Rob Gronkowski celebrates a touchdown with an emphatic spike.EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After watching Rob Gronkowski catch a game-high eight passes for a 113 yards and two touchdowns, Jets coach Rex Ryan was asked how much of a matchup problem the second-year tight end can be.
"About 6 [feet], 7 [inches]," sighed Ryan.
Gronkowski used his size to his advantage, hauling in a pair of touchdown passes in the middle frames Sunday, helping the Patriots rally out of their only hole of the night late in the first half, then race away after the intermission.
"That was one of the issues," said Ryan. "The kid makes a lot of plays. He's a factor in the red zone. You have to watch [Wes] Welker -- they have a lot of weapons. We tried to match them up in different zones, we tried to bracket sometimes. But the young man did a nice job of catching the football."
The Jets pulled ahead after a Mark Sanchez touchdown run with 1:20 remaining in the first half, but Gronkowski helped the Patriots respond with a pivotal score before the break. Even with New England starting at its own 20, Gronkowski hauled in a 12-yard pass to light the fuse, then instant replay overturned a potential fumble call, preserving Gronkowski's 23-yard grab that moved the drive into Jets territory. Facing 3rd-and-12 at the New York 18, Gronkowski rose up over the defense near the middle of the end zone, while hauling in his first touchdown pass -- and absorbing a big hit to the thigh in the process, but it sent New England into the intermission up 13-9.
Still nursing a one-score lead late in the third quarter, the Patriots capitalized on a short field off a Rob Ninkovich interception when Gronkowski caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Brady (he put a little too much gusto into the spike and got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, though the penalty didn't hinder the Patriots).
Gronkowski hesitated to suggest his size made him a tough matchup for New York.
"There a lot of guys that are main targets for [Brady]," he said. "Everyone is playing great. You never know who can be the main target that game. You never know what the coverage is going to be. You just have to be prepared for every game, every coverage, and go out there ready."
By the end of the night, the Jets had paid Gronkowski the ultimate sign of respect, often moving shutdown corner Darrelle Revis over to cover him on the outside (despite the obvious size mismatch).
"He's a great player and it's a great challenge going up against Revis," said Gronkowski. "I just basically have to run my route how I have to run my route, how the coaches and how Tom teach me how to run my routes in practice. Whoever it is [defending], that's how you just have to do it."
With 52 catches for 709 yards and eight touchdowns during his sophomore season, one thing is clear to the Jets and the rest of the league: Gronkowski can be a big problem.
"He's a great player and we depend on him," said Brady. "I think he came up very big tonight. We needed him to come out big tonight. It was a tough matchup. He's big, but he has good speed. He's a very savvy runner and he's a good blocker. We have to keep finding ways to get him the ball."
Defenses certainly haven't figured out a way to make sure he doesn't.