BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Outside of a short appearance at a Madden NFL event earlier this week, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had not spoken with the media since leaving the second quarter of the AFC Championship game with a head injury.
As he worked his way through the NFL's concussion protocol over the last week-plus leading up to Sunday's Super Bowl LII, the All-Pro New England pass catcher was absent and then limited in practice. As of Wednesday afternoon's first practice of the week in Minneapolis, Bill Belichick revealed that Gronkowski was treated as if he wore a red, non-contact jersey that the team uses for injured players and he was still in the protocol process.
But Thursday evening during Patriots media availability at the Mall of America, the team's final session with reporters prior to the big game, Gronkowski sat on a riser, behind a microphone and declared himself good to go just a few hours after being a full participant in the day's practice.
"Officially got the word today that I was cleared," Gronkowski said to a massive media throng. "Ready to roll."
Gronkowski will have no limitation against the Eagles and said many times that he was confident all along that he would be cleared for Super Bowl Sunday. He did say that having the bye week between the Jags game and this Sunday "definitely helped."
"We knew the whole time I'd be ready to go. I was progressing the whole time," Gronkowski said. "Super excited. One more opportunity to go out there and play the game I love to play."
Gronkowski said he's now gone through contact in practice similar to what fans and reporters would see during training camp, though early in the process he was limited to "brain exercises" and other off-field work.
The tight end will now get the chance to play in another Super Bowl, something he missed out on a year ago while on IR after back surgery.
"Every time you get the chance to play in the Super Bowl, you have to cherish the moment, no matter what," Gronkowski said.
Now, New England heads into the big game with its biggest offensive weapon to match up with the Eagles impressive defense.
"We expect a long, physical battle," Gronkowski concluded. "It's a challenge. You know they will be bringing it. We have to bring it too."
Tom Brady leads the Patriots into the Super Bowl for the eighth time. He's looking to secure the franchises' record-tying sixth ring.
Brady runs a star-studded offense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in yards and No. 2 and points. He and Rob Gronkowski are all-time greats.
New England's defense, on the other hand, isn't exactly loaded with household names. The biggest star on the unit, Dont'a Hightower, is on injured reserve. Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler are past Pro Bowlers.
The unit finished 29th in the NFL in yards, but its bend-but-don't-break style finished No. 5 in points allowed, just one spot behind the supposedly-elite Eagles defense.
Make no mistake, the Patriots defenders know they play in the shadow of Brady's offense but are confident they will be able to carry their share of the load on Super Bowl Sunday.
"I feel like our whole defense is underrated," said linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who's undergone a career rebirth as one of the Patriots most versatile defenders. "Everyone talks about the offense. But I feel like you can name every player on our defense and say they are underrated or not talked about."
Brady going nowhere
As he prepares to put the wraps on his 18th NFL season, the 40-year-old quarterback Brady continues to answer not only questions about his age but also his playing future. Following the midseason trade of budding backup Jimmy Garoppolo, it would seem assured that the G.O.A.T. will be back for 2018.
In an interview with NFL Media, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said that Brady has "earned the right" to make the decision of when he retires. The quarterback was asked about that comment.
"Why does everyone want me to retire so bad? I'm having fun, the team is doing good," Brady said with a big smile. "I know I'm a little bit older than most of the guys, but I'm really enjoying it. I obviously enjoy the experience of playing in this game. This has been obviously a dream come true, many times over. We had a good practice today and we're going to need a couple more good ones. We are playing against a good football team so I'm not thinking about retirement. I'm thinking about the Super Bowl and trying to win the most important game of the year and it's going to take a lot to do it."
He also reiterated his desire the play beyond just this year or even next.
"I always wanted to play into my mid-40s, so we will see. Football is such a physical sport and every game could be your last game, it's the reality of the sport so I'd love to plan for those things," Brady said. "I try to work hard at the things I need to for my body to feel good week after week and year after year. I've got a good routine that has really worked for me especially the last 10-12 years. As long as I feel like I'm willing to make the commitment to do those things then I feel like my body will allow me to do that. So that's what my goals are."
Kraft clarified his comments in an appearance Thursday morning on the Not Done Network on Patriots.com.
"It was asked, 'How do you tell Tom Brady he has to retire?' and Andrea obviously has to ask that question," Kraft said of his comments to longtime league reporter Andrea Kremer. "Forget Tom for a minute. I don't think you tell any player when they have to retire. I think if you play in the National Football League, that's a player's decision, and a lot goes in to whether or not you want to retire. It's personal. So it's not just Tom-related, but Tom is obviously on his own level in so many bases."
The idea of some mythical Patriot Way has been propagated in the media over the years. There is this theory that walking through the doors into the football offices of Gillette Stadium comes with some life-altering handbook or leads to an instant personality rewiring.
So it's no surprise that plenty of Patriots were asked this week by the gathered media at Super Bowl LII.
But the responses probably weren't as deep or fulfilling as reporters may have hoped.
"Work hard. Stay out of trouble," veteran safety Patrick Chung said.
And what exactly does is mean to stay out of trouble?
"Stay out of trouble. Period," Chung reiterated.
Fellow safety and longtime team captain Devin McCourty also had a pretty simple description.
"Just do the right thing," Devin McCourty said. "I think there's a lot of hype to the Patriot Way. Just do the right thing."
Notable late-season New England new comer James Harrison, who might be seen as a guy trying to swiftly fit into a new home with a former rival, also downplayed the topic.
"The Patriot Way is hard work," the longtime Steeler said.