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Gronk returns with career performance as Pats clinch East

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Gronkowski the difference in Pats' win (2:02)

Ryan Clark and Jeff Saturday agree that having Sean Davis on Rob Gronkowski was a complete mismatch and Gronk was able to get the best of his defender. (2:02)

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 a career-high 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 and then a successful two-point conversion.

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? One of his receptions on the final drive came as he plucked the ball right right off his shoe tops before it hit the ground, which had teammates in awe.

"Gronk GOAT! Gronk GOAT! Gronk GOAT!" fellow tight end Dwayne Allen yelled out to anyone who would listen in a jubilant postgame locker room. "It was one of the greatest tight end performances I've ever seen, where he totally put the team on his back. He's 6-7 and he took it off his toes! He took it off his toes! You're not supposed to do that at 6-7. He's the GOAT."

"Have you seen a player like him?" asked special-teams captain Matthew Slater. "I think he was disappointed with the way things went [with the suspension], and he was very concerned about that. He had a bull's-eye focus and a mindset of 'I owe the team.' We had a conversation Friday night about him feeling like he had to have a big game to give the team a boost. I think he delivered on that."

After one of his catches on the final drive, Gronkowski had flexed his muscles, saying it was just a spontaneous reaction.

"I love getting in that zone," he said, smiling. "I wish I could be like that 24-7, every week and every day."

When Gronkowski gets to that place, quarterback Tom Brady often feeds him regardless of the defensive coverage, explaining after the game that a 50-50 ball to Gronkowski might be more like a 95-5 ball in his favor. Coach Bill Belichick added that when Gronkowski is covered, he's still open. And running back Dion Lewis turned to humor when he said he knew Gronkowski would have a big day because after a week off, "he had to eat."

Led by Gronkowski, the Patriots improved to 11-3, clinched the AFC East, and kept 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 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 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.

"The emotions were up and down ... like a roller-coaster," Gronkowski said. "You're down, and then you're up and then you're up again. You're down because you think he catches it, but then the ball pops up in the air and you are like, ‘Ohhhhhh,' and then we intercept it. The ride ended very well."

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.