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Patriots welcome Rob Gronkowski's return

Reuters

Eleven days after leaving the AFC Championship Game with a head injury, Rob Gronkowski was cleared from NFL concussion protocol on Thursday and practiced without limitation with the New England Patriots during the team’s afternoon workout at the Minnesota Vikings’ practice facility 15 miles away in Eden Prairie.

“I knew I was going to be playing (in the Super Bowl) the whole time,” Gronkowski said in his first meeting of the week with media members at Mall of America. While in concussion protocol, players are not allowed to participate in press conferences.

“The biggest test was just waiting to get cleared. And waiting. And waiting. I was just waiting for that day. I knew I was going to prepare, be prepared, that wasn’t going to be a problem.”

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the Patriots do have a game plan in place should Gronkowski regress for any reason and not be able to play. Dwayne Allen, who is mostly used as an inline blocker and will be vital in pass protection on Sunday, had only 10 catches in 2017 but said Thursday he would be prepared to play any role of significance if it helps the Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles.

While officially he will be listed as questionable for Super Bowl LII, Gronkowski presents a major problem for Philadelphia. The Eagles could use safety Malcolm Jenkins exclusively on Gronkowski, but rarely do teams hold up for four quarters when lining up in man schemes against the big tight end.

Gronkowski said he is not upset with Jacksonville Jaguars safety Barry Church, who was flagged and fined $24,309 for the open-field collision that concussed the 200-cm, 120-kg Gronkowski.

“It’s football,” Gronkowski said before a media throng of at least 25 tripod TV cameras and more than 100 reporters. “It’s a split second to make a decision. It’s running full speed one way. I’m going the other way. It’s just part of the game. It happens. Just got to move on.”

Quarterback Tom Brady said he saw the usual Gronkowski on the field Thursday. He is thrilled to see Gronkowski return to the field considering his top receiver from 2016, Julian Edelman, missed the entire season due to injury. Gronkowski did not play against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI last February because he was on injured reserve due to back surgery.

“He’s a dynamic player,” Brady said of Gronkowski, who led the team with 69 receptions, 1,084 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017. “He means a ton to our offense. We’re obviously all hoping he’s out there.”

Like Brady, coach Bill Belichick left open some doubt about Gronkowski’s game-day status. However, there is not an ounce of ambiguity about what Gronkowski believes to be the plan Sunday night.

“I’m cleared, I’m ready to roll,” he said.

Brady wore tape on his healing right hand at Thursday’s practice, now 15 days since a practice collision with running back Rex Burkhead caused a laceration on his throwing hand that required stitches. Brady wore a black glove to his media session Thursday night and said he is even sleeping in the custom-made Under Armour mitten.

“I’m doing better,” Brady said. “Good to be out there and participate the way that I have. Obviously still not where I want to be.”

Brady said Under Armour sent him the glove because it is great for recovery.

With Gronkowski back, the Patriots are at full strength offensively. They said that’s the only way to beat the Eagles — with every weapon available.

“The defense is good in a lot of ways,” Gronkowski said. “Putting pressure on the quarterback, their wide-9 (defensive ends) stand out.”

But in Brady’s past three starts against a defense coached by current Eagles coordinator Jim Schwartz — all three games were against different teams — the Patriots scored 37 or more points. Those games include New England wins of 40-23 (2006, Tennessee Titans), 45-24 (2010, Detroit Lions) and 37-22 (2014, Buffalo Bills).

Philadelphia’s penchant for push at all four positions on the defensive line and the Eagles’ dominant run defense might put Brady in position to attack with short, quick passes to running backs, plus Gronkowski and Allen.

Brady echoed Gronkowski’s sentiments about contending with the Eagles’ defensive line.

“Their D-line is the best we’ve faced all year,” Brady said. “Eight deep. They play the run. They strip-sack the quarterback. . . . They’re not going to tire out. They haven’t tired out all season.”

Brady, who is 5-2 all-time in Super Bowls and starting his eighth this week, said “not one easy yard” will be gained against the Eagles, but the team that finds big plays will be celebrating at U.S. Bank Stadium and the other will have “a pretty crappy Sunday.”

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