First impressions: Patriots smother Steelers offense, punch Super Bowl ticket

First impressions: Patriots smother Steelers offense, punch Super Bowl ticket

FOXBORO -- Here are a few quick-hitting impressions from Sunday's AFC title game, which resulted in the Patriots making their seventh Super Bowl under head coach Bill Belichick . . . 

PATRIOTS 36, STEELERS 17

​* The Patriots defense has heard "yeah, but" all season. They finished the season as the top scoring defense in the league, but because they've faced a spate of mediocre (or worse) quarterbacks since a Week 10 loss to the Seahawks, there have been some reservations about crowning them as a championship-caliber. Those reservations evaporated as Ben Roethlisberger was held to 239 yards on 24-of-38 passing (6.3 yards per attempt), no touchdowns and one interception before Roethlisberger picked up some easy yards late in the fourth quarter with the Patriots defense hanging back. Roethlisberger did hit Cobi Hamilton for a 30-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, adding a two-point conversion to make the score, 36-17.

* Matt Patricia's unit can hang its hat on one particularly impressive goal-line stand at the end of the second quarter, when the Steelers had a first-and-goal from the one-yard line. On that goal-line stand, the Patriots stuffed a DeAngelo Williams run with good penetration from Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung. On a second-down rush attempt, rookie defensive tackle Vincent Valentine powered through the line almost untouched and made a tackle for a three-yard loss. Roethlisberger took to the air on third down, missing Eli Rogers (with Eric Rowe in good position) to force a field goal. 

* The Patriots plan of attack seemed to be to rely on zone coverage for good chunks of the night, forcing Roethlisberger to string together a series of well-executed plays to drive the field. When the Steelers got deeper into Patriots territory, when the defense benefited from a more tightly-packed field -- situations where the Steelers offense has struggled this season, particularly on the road -- the Patriots were able to clamp down. Not only did they pick up their goal-line stop in the second quarter, they also forced a turnover on downs deep in their own territory in the fourth quarter when Logan Ryan broke up Roethlisberger's floater to the back corner of the end zone. 

* The Patriots wisely doubled Antonio Brown at different points, but particularly in the red zone. The goal seemed to be to very obviously take away the first-team All-Pro -- as they did in Week 7 when Landry Jones was at quarterback -- and force Roethlisberger to go elsewhere. Roethlisberger had some luck going to tight end Jesse James (five catches 48 yards) deep in Patriots territory, but not enough for the Patriots to change their plan. 

* Le'Veon Bell's groin injury in the first quarter took away what was arguably Pittsburgh's best weapon coming in. He was shaken up on the Steelers' third drive of the game, returned to take one hand-off, but looked slow to the line of scrimmage (which, granted, is kind of his running style even when he's healthy) and did not return. He finished with six carries for 20 yards (a 3.3 yards-per-carry average). Williams was Pittsburgh's leading rusher, taking 14 hand-offs for 34 yards (a 2.4 yards-per-carry average). Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch had yet another strong outing, chipping in on at least three run-stuffs. Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown were in on at least two of their own as well.

* A pair of first-year Patriots played big roles in the defensive performance put together against Roethlisberger and Co. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, acquired mid-season in a trade with the Lions, forced a fumble in the third quarter that was recovered by Rob Ninkovich. In the fourth, Eric Rowe easily picked off a Roethlisberger overthrow to stop another Steelers drive before it could start.

When it comes to Gronkowski's restructured deal, 15 is the magic number

When it comes to Gronkowski's restructured deal, 15 is the magic number

Rob Gronkowski's contract looked like one of the NFL's best bargains not too long ago. Now, after agreeing to a contract restructure, he could be paid as the top tight end in the league if he stays healthy.

Granted, it's a gargantuan "if."

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Gronkowski's restructured deal will bump his salary for this upcoming season from $5.25 million to $10.75 million should he hit certain statistical thresholds or be named an All-Pro.

Per Schefter, Gronkowski earns $10.75 million if he plays 90 percent of the offensive snaps (which he's done once before in his career), or makes 80 catches (which he's done twice), or gains 1,200 yards receiving (once), or is named an All-Pro (three times). 

Those seem like lofty goals for the 28-year-old who's entering his eighth year as a pro. But history shows that if he stays on the field for a full season or thereabouts -- 15 games to be specific -- he'll get to where he wants to be. 

If you take out his rookie year, before he had established himself as a go-to option in the Patriots offense, Gronkowski has played in three seasons during which he's reached at least 15 games. In each of those three seasons, he's been named an All-Pro. In 2011, he hit all three statistical markers. In 2014, he hit one. In 2015, he hit none. 

The lesson? When Gronkowski stays relatively healthy throughout a given season, even if he doesn't reach the astronomical statistical heights he reached in his second year, there's a very good chance he's considered the best tight end in the NFL. 

And if that's the case again in 2017, he'll be paid like the best tight end in the NFL.

To hit the second tier of his restructured deal -- which would pay him $8.75 million, per Schefter -- Gronkowski needs to play 80 percent of the offensive snaps (which he's done twice), or make 70 catches (three times), or gain 1,000 receiving yards (three times), or catch 12 touchdowns (twice). 

To hit the third tier of his new deal and get $6.75 million, Gronkowski needs to play 70 percent of the snaps (which he's done four times), or make 60 catches (three times), or gain 800 receiving yards (three times), or score 10 touchdowns (five times). 

According to Spotrac, Jimmy Graham of the Seahawks is currently scheduled to be the tight end position's top earner next season at $10 million. Odds are that if Gronkowski avoids disaster and stays on the field, he'll eclipse that.

But the odds of him staying on the field are what they are: He's played in 15 games in four of seven pro seasons. 

The restructured deal seems to be the ultimate incentive for Gronkowski to get healthy and stay that way following last year's season-ending back surgery. If he can, the Patriots will reap the benefits of having the game's most dynamic offensive weapon on the field, and the player will be paid a far cry from what he was scheduled to make when the week began.

Report: Patriots, Gronkowski restructure contract for 2017 season

Report: Patriots, Gronkowski restructure contract for 2017 season

The Patriots and Rob Gronkowski have restructured the tight end’s contract for the coming season, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. 

The reworked deal can bump Gronkowski’s salary for the 2017 season from $5.25 million to $10.75 million, according to Schefter. 

Gronkowski was limited by injury to just eight games last season. He had 25 receptions for 540 yards and three touchdowns, all of which were career lows. 

The 28-year-old is entering his eighth NFL season since being selected by the Pats in the second round of the 2010 draft. He has played played in at least 15 regular-season games in four of his first seven season, though he’s twice played fewer than 10.