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Patriots’ one-two punch of Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski is too much to handle for Rams

ATLANTA, GEORGIA, FEBRUARY 3, 2019 - Patriots receiver Julian Edelman leans into Rams defensive back
Patriots receiver Julian Edelman is brought down by Rams cornerback Aqib Talib after a reception during the first half.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Julian Edelman had caught all 10 of his passes for 141 yards Sunday night, a performance that would earn the New England Patriots slot receiver Super Bowl most valuable player honors, when he turned to tight end Rob Gronkowski in the huddle with a fourth-quarter plea.

“Julian looked at me and said, ‘We need another play out of you, Rob, we need a huge play,’” Gronkowski said after the Patriots’ 13-3 victory over the Rams in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“He’s been making them all game. I had to step up. Tom threw that ball where it needed to be, and I made the play.”

The score was tied 3-3 when New England took over on its own 31-yard line with 9 minutes 49 seconds remaining. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, looking for some more favorable matchups, went to a “big” personnel package, with two tight ends, one wide receiver, a fullback and running back.

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Quarterback Tom Brady opened the drive by lofting an 18-yard swing pass to Gronkowski, who made the catch over the shoulder of Rams linebacker Samson Ebukam.

Brady hit Edelman for 13 yards and Rex Burkhead for seven yards, moving the ball to the Rams’ 31.

That’s when Edelman made his request to the 6-foot-6, 268-pound Gronkowski, who ran a corner route toward the left sideline and hauled in a perfectly thrown pass from Brady behind face-guarding linebacker Cory Littleton for a 29-yard gain.

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That set up Sony Michel’s tiebreaking two-yard touchdown run with seven minutes left that gave the Patriots a 10-3 lead and sent them hurdling toward their sixth Super Bowl championship since 2001.

“It was just an incredible catch,” Brady said of Gronkowski, who caught six passes for 87 yards. “He’s an awesome player, a great teammate and friend, and I’m just so proud of everything that he’s done for our team. He just had an incredible game.”

So did the sure-handed Edelman, who found so many seams and soft spots in the Rams’ zone coverage and won so many one-on-one battles that, according to Next Gen Stats, he averaged 3.9 yards of separation, getting open by three or more yards on nine of his 12 targets.

The 5-foot-10, 198-pound Edelman caught seven passes for 93 yards in the first half and passed 100 yards in a playoff game for the sixth time in his career, tying Michael Irvin for the second-most games behind Jerry Rice (eight).

The former Kent State dual-threat quarterback who was a seventh-round pick of the Patriots in 2009 also ranks second behind Rice with 115 career postseason receptions for 1,412 yards. Rice caught 151 passes for 2,245 yards during his Hall of Fame career.

“It’s hard to imagine, for sure,” Edelman said of his rise from small-college quarterback to star NFL receiver to Super Bowl MVP. “I’m getting to live out a dream, so it’s pretty surreal right now. It’s an honor to be put in the same sentence as Jerry Rice.”

Edelman missed the 2017 season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn knee ligament, and he was suspended for the first four games of 2018 for violating the NFL’s policy on performing-enhancing substances.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” Edelman said. “I was always taught as a young boy that you always have to work hard, put in the extra time, and we’ll see where it goes. Worry about what you have on your plate at that time. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

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Edelman was clearly the best player on the field for the first three quarters Sunday night, when both teams struggled to generate any kind of offensive momentum and continuity.

His 25-yard reception on a third-and-one play in the second quarter, when he deked Nickell Robey-Coleman with an outside move and cut back over the middle, set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 42-yard field goal that gave New England a 3-0 lead with 10:29 left in the first half.

Edelman had one more big play in the third quarter, turning a quick slant from Brady into a 27-yard gain, but the Patriots were unable to find the end zone until the fourth.

“Julian had an unbelievable game,” Gronkowski said. “He’s an unbelievable player. He played his ass off tonight, like he always does. He was the MVP, and it was well-deserved.”

Gronkowski suffered what he called a “quad shot” in the second quarter when a vicious hit knocked him out of the game for a play, but that didn’t stop him from playing a significant role in the fourth.

“It hurts a lot — I can barely walk right now,” Gronkowski said afterward. “It tightened up, but the adrenaline’s flowing, and it’s the Super Bowl. I probably won’t be able to walk that well tomorrow, but it’s all good, we’re Super Bowl champs.”

There has been speculation that Gronkowski, a nine-year veteran who reportedly played through Achilles and lower-back injuries this season, might retire. He was not ready to make any kind of announcement after winning his third Super Bowl.

“Tonight, it’s about celebrating with my teammates, and that decision will be made in a week or two,” Gronkowski said. “We’re gonna have a good time. Bill [Belichick, Patriots coach] told me he’s partying tonight, so you know it’s gonna be good.”

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna


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