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Rob Gronkowski to finally fulfil Super Bowl potential

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Rob Gronkowski is finally healthy. And that just might be the most important factor come Sunday in the Super Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The New England Patriots tight end has an injury history that belies his 25 years - four surgeries on a broken left forearm, another op on a herniated disc, and the worst of the them all, the dreaded ACL tear in 2013.

His breakout sophomore campaign set records for receiving yards (1,327) and total touchdowns by a tight end (18) but it ultimately count for naught as the Pats choked away Super Bowl XLVI to an inferior New York Giants team.

Surprise, surprise, Gronkowski went into the game heavily banged up, playing on an injured ankle that limited his contribution to just a couple of receptions for 26 yards.

Three seasons on, Gronkowski has gone back to his future - the future he was supposed to have before the train wreck of injuries. He's now returned to his 2011 form, form that promised so much.

Come Sunday, he will be the key man for the Patriots against the much vaunted Legion of Boom. Not Tom Brady.

If Gronk is on his game, even one of the NFL's historically great defenses will struggle to contain him. He's 6ft-6in tall, 265lbs of gym muscle, a bundle of energy off-the-field that translates into smash mouth football on it.

Just ask Sergio Brown...

An 82-catch season, for more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns, is All-Pro performance, but Gronkowski's importance to the offense extends past these numbers.

He's absolutely crucial to Brady, whose performance drops when his star tight end is not on the field.

Through the first four weeks of this season, Gronkowski was still feeling his way back from the ACL tear - and he only managed 13 receptions for a 147 yards.

Brady's Total QBR through those first four games was 47.6, putting him on a similar performance level to Alex Smith and Teddy Bridgewater. Since that Week 4 loss to Kansas City, his QBR has been 76.8 - up with the likes of Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

Going further back, in 2013 Gronk played just seven games as injuries bookended his season. In his seven games played, Brady's Total QBR was 64, without Gronk it was 52.3.

Red Zone

Then there's his importance to the Red Zone offense - everybody knows this already, but the numbers are truly incredible.

On 82 career Red Zone targets, Gronkowski has 42 touchdowns. That's 42 touchdowns on 56 receptions within 20 yards of the goal line. So, target him twice in the Red Zone, one of them is going to for a touchdown.

That's a better rate than Jimmy Graham, the consensus best tight end in the league heading into the season.

Next you come to his vertical threat. Gronkowski is crucial to a Pats passing game that relies on short yardage throws and yards after the catch. Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen both crack the top 25 for YAC in the NFL, but it's Gronkowski up at number 11 that leads the team with 475 YAC.

And this is how he does it…

Brady doesn't go deep often, but when he does invariably it's up the seam to Gronk. His yards-per-catch number (13.7) is higher than Edelman's and Lafell's.

So how do the Seahawks stop him?

It's expected that Pete Carroll will task Mr Bam-Bam Gavel himself, Kam Chancellor, with the role of containing the Pats #87.

They aren't many in the game that hit harder than Chancellor, but he's got to be careful to avoid the same fate as Bears DB Ryan Mundy.

Gronkowski sheds tackles like a bored teenager squashing flies, his naturally upbeat demeanour at odds with a player who seeks out confrontation and relishes the physical contact.

The Seahawks will look to play on that.

They'll be in his face from the start, and Chancellor will probably look to press Gronk at the line of scrimmage. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Seahawks secondary get handsy with the tight end, so how this game is called by the officials could have a huge bearing on the outcome.

Here's what Gronk will be up against Sunday...

But while the Legion of Boom have been spectacular over the second half of the season, holding opponents to an average of 7.8 points-per-game since Week 12, their defense against tight ends has been a definite chink in the armour.

The league's number one defense across most metrics has actually been just about league average defending opposing tight ends, with a DVOA of -1.1 per cent.

They allowed three touchdowns to tight end Antonio Gates in Week 2, another to Julius Thomas in Week 3, one to Jason Witten in Week 6, Lance Kendricks got one for the Rams in a Week 7 loss, Mychal Rivera got two for the Raiders in Week 9, and Zach Ertz scored for the Eagles in Week 14.

In fact, of the 17 passing touchdowns given up by the Seahawks this season, nine have been to tight ends. Gronkowski will like those odds.

Deep coverage

And the area where he can do the most damage, deep across the middle, is a soft spot for the Seahawks. Per Football Outsiders the Seahawks secondary is much worse than league average defending this area of the field against the pass (53.8 per cent DVOA vs. NFL average of 28.6 per cent).

With defense, the higher the percentage the worse the defense, as positive percentages equal higher scoring.

The Seahawks make up for it by being much better than average on the deep right and deep left (having Sherman to lock down one side helps).

Obviously, they're great on short routes across the field, with -21.6 per cent DVOA on the short left, -1 per cent through the middle and -16.3 per cent short right.

But that weak point in the deep middle of the field is an area for Gronkowski to exploit.

Gronk spike

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a master of attacking an opponent's weakness. Unfortunately, Seattle's D doesn't have weaknesses, just areas where it's less good than great.

Of course, Belichick is also a master of the unexpected, so it's perfectly possible his game-plan goes in a different direction.

For Gronkowski though, the chances will be there for the Patriots tight end. How he performs on Sunday will go a long way to determining the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX.

He's finally healthy. Time to make it count.

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New England Patriots
Seattle Seahawks

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