EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ -- New England lost to the Jets Sunday afternoon, but not for lack of Rob Gronkowski.
The game was Gronkowski's first since January 13, thanks to multiple forearm procedures and one back surgery. If he was limited in the debut it wasn't by much; he played 51 of 79 snaps in the 30-27 loss.
"It felt good to get back out there with the teammates, fight with your team, play hard with your team," he said in the aftermath. "You win as a team, you lose a team, and you've got to give it to the Jets -- they're a good team, they've got a good defense and we've just got to make more plays out there."
Gronkowski has been practicing with his teammates since Day 1 of the regular season schedule. As the weeks went by and the tight end remained inactive, it became clear he would only return when 100-percent ready.
So full-health was promised after a seven-week wait. But what of rust?
The veteran said it didn't take long to settle in: "I was in there on a lot of blocking plays and it was just really after the first play. I mean, after the first time you get tackled, after the first blocking play, after basically the first play it felt good. It felt just like normal, being back out there with the teammates and rolling."
Gronkowski's comfort translated to eight catches for 114 yards. Patriots tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matt Mulligan had 96 combined yards in the previous five games.
When quarterback Tom Brady was asked if Gronkowski's mere presence opened up the field, he didn't hesitate.
"Oh, of course. He's one of the best players in the NFL. You saw what he did today [and] it's his first game back."
He almost won the game single-handedly. Quite literally.
With 36 seconds left in regulation, Brady came out of shotgun on the Jets 26 and found Gronkowski streaking down the middle of the field. The tight end went up and wrapped a big right paw around the ball. But his left hand, wrapped up in a bulky black brace, stayed down by his side.
He couldn't corral the pass and New England had to settle for a game-tying field goal.
"He ran a great route," Brady said. "We gave him an opportunity. He probably makes that 99-out-of-100 [times]. It was just one of those days where it didn't happen for us. There were plenty of other opportunities after that. It really shouldn't have come down to that play."
It's undeniable the Patriots still have issues on offense. Though the team went 2-for-2 in the red zone, it went just 1-for-11 on third down for an abysmal 8-percent conversion rate. Brady's confidence in his returned tight end was certainly evident as he targeted Gronkowski five times on third-down and 17 times overall.
"All of us have to do a better job," the QB noted. "Nobody is obviously doing it perfect out there. There's a lot of room for improvement."
And Gronkowski agrees. While he's thrilled to be back, he understands the real work has only just begun.
"I'm feeling good and just got to keep working hard every week, got to keep on improving every week," he concluded. "[I've] got lots to improve on and can keep on getting better every week."