FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The importance of every play is magnified in the NFL playoffs, because one mistake could end a team's season. There is an added layer to that dynamic this year for the New England Patriots: It could also mean the end of tight end Rob Gronkowski's career.
If so, it's been a fun ride.
Gronkowski, 29, had surprised some after Super Bowl LII when he said immediately after a heartbreaking loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that he would consider his football future. He ultimately returned, obviously, but hasn't been the dominating player he was for stretches of his nine-year career. In 13 games this season, he totaled 47 receptions for 682 yards and three touchdowns while battling back and ankle injuries.
So naturally, the question lingers: Is Gronkowski, 11 months later, once again considering retirement?
Then there's this question: If Gronkowski does return in 2019, joining quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Julian Edelman in the last year of their contracts as part of an aging core, would the Patriots balk at paying him a $9 million base salary (salary cap charge of $12 million) based on declining production?
Those answers ultimately will come after the playoffs, where Gronkowski has done some of his best work, and the Patriots hope he can rediscover some of his old magic as they prepare to host a divisional-round game Jan. 13 at Gillette Stadium (1 p.m. ET).
Gronkowski's 12 postseason touchdowns are an NFL record for a tight end, and he can break a tie with former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver John Stallworth for the second-most receiving touchdowns in NFL playoff history behind former San Francisco 49ers receiver Jerry Rice (22).
Furthermore, his 68 receptions for 972 yards are the most by a tight end in NFL playoff history. He is one of only three tight ends -- joining Vernon Davis and Keith Jackson -- with at least four 100-yard receiving games in the postseason.
If Gronkowski breaks out, it would be a notable change from the regular season, as some opponents viewed him differently than in the past.
"We didn't game plan for him, or have any doubles on him. Our plan was to hit him early, stop him early, because he can't restart anymore if he's redirected," said one defensive coach who faced the Patriots in 2018.
Such an approach came with greater risk in Gronkowski's prime years, when he helped redefine the position as a true combination weapon: equally destructive as a blocker and pass-catcher, and someone who figures to garner discussion for the Pro Football Hall of Fame (only eight tight ends are enshrined).
Just two seasons ago, Gronkowski led all tight ends by averaging 9.2 yards after the catch, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, often dragging multiple defenders along for the ride. This season, he averaged 3.96 yards after the catch, ranking 16th among eligible tight ends.
"Everyone has been so afraid to press him, jam him at the line of scrimmage, but that's easier to do now," the defensive coach said.
Another coach referred to Gronkowski as more of a big receiver at this point in his career.
"He's not at the old level, for sure. He's not moving the same way, but he can get into space and is still a big body," he said.
The 6-foot-6, 268-pound Gronkowski still has made some meaningful contributions this season. In a Week 14 loss at Miami, for example, he had eight receptions for 107 yards and one touchdown. This past Sunday against the Jets, he reached low to pluck one reception off his shoe tops, and he had another nice catch-and-run play called back because of a penalty on a teammate. Overall, his run-blocking remains competitive, even as his workload has been trimmed by the team in each of the past two games.
Gronkowski has traditionally played in every offensive package, but in victories in Weeks 16 and 17, the Patriots replaced him with No. 2 tight end Dwayne Allen in the package featuring two receivers, one tight end, one fullback and one running back.
That could simply be a case of keeping him fresh for the playoffs, but if Gronkowski continues to spend more time on the sidelines in the postseason, it could be a foreshadowing of what is to come in the offseason.
Would cost-conscious Bill Belichick pay $9 million for a tight end who isn't on the field for every play?
And is Gronkowski -- who didn't participate in the voluntary offseason program for the first time in his career last year -- up for subjecting his physically battered body to another season of the grind?
Belichick often says those decisions aren't best made during the season, or even immediately after it. Taking some time often helps.
So for now, it's "all-in" for the playoffs, which could be Gronkowski's last.