Rob Gronkowski can't be stopped

FOXBOROUGH -- The inevitable transpired on the opening play of the third quarter and, predictably, you needed to look no further than Rob Gronkowski to identify the instigator.

After submitting an abominable half in which the toothless New England Patriots managed just 102 net yards on offense against the Miami Dolphins, they unleashed their beast of a receiver and directed him to do what he fervently believes he was put on this earth to accomplish: seek and destroy.

Seek the ball, catch it, punish the defense and destroy any false notions anybody might have about actually stopping him.

The Patriots had shuffled off at halftime clinging to a tenuous and downright listless 14-13 advantage before Tom Brady opened the second half by uncorking a 34-yard throw to Gronk. It was his first catch of the game and it immediately jump-started the team. Seven plays later, LeGarrette Blount found the end zone and the natural order in the AFC East was on its way to being restored.

New England cruised to a 41-13 win to secure its 11th divisional title in the past 12 seasons, and saw its tight end rack up 96 yards and a score on three catches.

Shut down Gronk? Yeah, sure. Good luck with that.

"I had the prototype when I played," former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe declared from the postgame locker room, "which was Ben Coates, who was too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. But Gronk is the evolution of the species. He's just giant.

"He's fast, strong, he can catch, and he's tough as nails. I don't know what you do if you are a defensive coordinator. You've got to put two guys on him."

Miami tried that too. In fact, New England's lone first-half offensive touchdown came on third-and-goal from the 3, when the Dolphins opted to double-team Gronk and left Shane Vereen free to scamper into the end zone.

"Fine with me," the big fella shrugged. "As long as we score."

You might recall that New England lost to these same Dolphins in Week 1. At the time, Gronk was admittedly a shell of himself. He was rusty, hesitant and something he rarely has been during his meteoric NFL career: a tad unsure of himself.

Coach Bill Belichick used him on just 38 of the team's 86 offensive snaps in the opener, mostly on third-down situations. He still caught four passes for 40 yards and a touchdown, but he was more like gronk instead of GRONK.

"Completely different," teammate Duron Harmon confirmed. "He's so much more confident now. When you first come back from an injury like that, you're thinking about it, you're conscious of it. That's only natural.

"Now he's just playing. I watch him overpower these teams and I'm just glad he's on my side. He's a mismatch for absolutely everyone."

There were all sorts of comforting trends in Sunday's game for the Patriots, among them a defense that has now given up just three total points in the second halves of the past three games; a running back (Jonas Gray) who was summoned from Siberia to rejoin the fray with great energy and success, and a kicker (Stephen Gostkowski) who has proven to be so automatic and so redoubtable he passed Adam Vinatieri as the team's all-time leading scorer.

Gostkowski has been around long enough to know how this works. Until he has a Super Bowl ring on his finger, he still won't be mentioned in the same breath as the great Vinatieri.

Gronk realizes this holds true for him as well. Deion Branch won't ever make it to the Hall of Fame, but he'll always have the 11 catches for 133 yards and the MVP award in Super Bowl XXXIX. Wes Welker was a popular, highly productive receiver in New England, but his legacy with the Patriots -- fair or not -- will be the ball he didn't catch on the game's biggest stage in Super Bowl XLVI.

The Patriots have demonstrated the necessary Super Bowl pedigree, including the "bend but don't break" defensive philosophy that served them so well during their championship days. The offense needs to hold up its end if they plan on going all the way.

The truth is the Patriots aren't going anywhere without their feline lovin', smashmouth tight end, who has become as indispensable as the well-coiffed quarterback who throws him the ball.

The most aesthetically pleasing play on Sunday was shortly after Patrick Chung picked off Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill when his intended receiver, Lamar Miller, was flattened by Patriots corner Brandon Browner. The play should have induced a flag, but the refs kept their yellow hankies in their pockets and awarded Brady and the Patriots the ball at the Miami 27-yard line.

On the next play, Brady looked downfield, saw Gronk running a seam route, and threaded the ball between safeties Reshad Jones and Jimmy Wilson for a touchdown.

"He's a big target and he makes it easy for me," Brady said. "He's awesome."

Gronk is, finally, completely healthy. It has been a long time coming, with many agonizing days of wondering if his best football was behind him. Knee injuries can be catastrophic, and during his lowest days, Gronk, who comes from a rugged football family with brothers whose careers were prematurely cut short by injury, let his mind wander to the darkest of places.

"That's why when you are feeling good, you have to smile and be happy about it," he said.

In the waning moments of a third quarter in which the Patriots scored 24 points (a team record for the third quarter), Brady hit Gronkowski with a 35-yard strike. The big guy hauled in the pass, hit the turf a bit awkwardly and stayed down, his helmet plowed into the turf, for just a moment.

In that split second, Gillette Stadium seemed to collectively holds its breath. Was Gronkowski hurt? It was almost as if 68,000 fans were whispering to him in unison, "Get up, get up, get up."

He did, of course, and once he popped back to his feet, he turned and demonstratively signaled for the first down.

Devin McCourty was among those who wondered -- albeit briefly -- if the big lug was OK. The Week 15 Gronk, he says, is the best version he's seen in his teammate's five seasons with the team.

"He back to being The Gronk," McCourty said. "He's at full tilt. I don't think anyone has found the solution for him."

Gronkowski was on the field for 60 out of the first 60 snaps on Sunday, until quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo came in for mop-up duty and the tight end was given a breather.

"I'm not tired," Rob Gronkowski declared.

We noticed.