FOXBORO -- He certainly wasn't himself, but he was out there. And he spiked one.
Rob Gronkowski returned to game action for the first time in six weeks in the Patriots' 28-0 win over the Dolphins on Sunday. He broke his left arm in a Week 11 win over the Colts and sat out as the Patriots went 4-1 in their five games without him.
Gronkowski appeared to be favoring his arm for much of the Dolphins game -- especially when kept on the line to block -- but he finished with two catches for 42 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown that led to his signature celebration: a right-handed spike.
"I was out there having a good time with my teammates," Gronkowski said. "It was a blast being back out on the field. It was up to the coaches, the training staff how much I was going to play. They control everything. I'm just glad we got the win versus a good Miami Dolphins team."
Gronkowski didn't play nearly as much as he does normally when fully healthy. He was on the field for about a quarter of New England's snaps -- 24 out of a possible 80, according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss. His arm was wrapped from his elbow to his wrist in a protective sleeve.
Gronkowski appeared to be favoring his arm at different points during the game: When used as a blocker on the line, he used his right hand to make initial contact with defenders; when blocking downfield, there points where he avoided contacting defenders with his left arm; when jogging back to the huddle in the second half, he cocked it in place while his right arm swung freely; even after his touchdown, when teammates joined him in the end zone to celebrate, he offered them right-handed high fives while his left arm rested at his side; quarterback Tom Brady tried to jump into his arms and Gronkowski made a half-hearted attempt to catch him with his good arm.
Gronkowski smiled wide in the locker room after the game and wouldn't say that his arm bothered him. He insisted that he was happy to finally take a few hits.
"It felt good," Gronkowski said. "I haven't got hit in a while. It's been a couple weeks, about 6 weeks, since I've got hit. It's football. Always ready to get hit. Always ready to get knocked down. Just gotta get back up and get in the huddle. So, good to be back out there."
Still, he hinted that the Patriots' upcoming bye will help him get back to playing like his old self.
"I was just out there, doing what I had to do," he answered when asked if his arm affected his blocking. "Doing what the coaches asked. We got a week off now so I'm just gonna be in the training room, trying to get stronger every day, just working hard. We'll go out there and make some good blocks when it comes down to it."
When it comes down to it, in the playoffs, Gronkowski said he'll be better off for the experience he got against the Dolphins.
"I got limited reps, obviously, not that many but you always want to get some reps before heading into the playoffs," Gronkowski explained. "It's good to get the speed down, the feel of the game. There's practice, you can go hard, but that was game time. It was great to get some reps in, get the flow back into it, and be out there with your teammates, and connect with some chemistry with your teammates."
In two weeks it will be important that the Patriots offense is as close to humming as possible. The reintroduction of a significant piece like Gronkowski, even if just for a quarter of their plays Sunday, could pay dividends for the group's rhythm come playoff time.
"It was nice to get him back in the flow of things," Brady said. "We used everybody, so it was exciting to kind of have everybody out there at once for the first time all season. We'll use the bye and hopefully come back strong in a couple weeks."
It was the first time since Week 7 when coach Bill Belichick's two standout tight ends, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, were out on the field at the same time. Hernandez said he noticed Gronkowski's impact right away.
"You know when Gronk's on the field you have to double him," Hernandez said. "He's too big and too athletic. So it opens things up for me, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, so it's good to have him back, and he's going to be even healthier come playoff time."
The Patriots are counting on it. Because even though he contributed against the Dolphins in limited action, it didn't look like he was at 100 percent. If he can get even more comfortable using his arm by the time the Patriots play in the AFC's Divisional Round in two weeks, their already potent offense will be even more dangerous.