For the New England Patriots offense, health has been a fleeting commodity this season.
When the offensive line was healthy, the backfield hurt. Then the receiving corps took its turn on the training table late the second half of the year.
Now, after wading through a season where the smorgasbord of injuries stunted the offense’s productivity at times, the Patriots enter Sunday’s AFC championship game as healthy as they’ve been in weeks.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski looks like himself after being bothered by several nagging aliments. Receivers Julian Edelman (broken foot) and Danny Amendola (knee) have also returned to the lineup, helping restore missing productivity to a unit that hummed with efficiency in carving up Kansas City’s defense in the divisional round.
Now the Patriots are hoping the rediscovered chemistry carries over as they prepare to face a Denver defense that allowed the fewest yards per game during the regular season. It was the NFL’s stingiest defense against the pass.
"We’re going to be as healthy as we can be," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "It was good to have our guys on the field last week, that was a big part of us getting better and making some improvements, and we’re going to need to do it again this week."
With his core targets active against the Chiefs, Brady looked as comfortable as he has in weeks.
Beyond two touchdowns to Gronkowski, Brady kept several drives going by linking up with Edelman – one of his favorite short-yardage targets – for 10 completions. Amendola also had a pair of catches.
It all helped Brady notch his first 300-yard performance in a win since a Nov. 15 win at New York.
Coach Bill Belichick said players like Edelman with time in the Patriots system can jump right back into the mix.
Belichick also noted how much extra time that Edelman put in while he was rehabbing, ensuring both he and Brady were able to remain on the same page even though he wasn’t able to be on the field.
"Julian is an experienced player, and he’s taken a lot of snaps with us. Even though he didn’t play at the end of the season and with the bye week and all that, he had an opportunity to get some time back in there," Belichick said. "Hopefully, that will continue to improve with him and other players that fall into that similar category."
Amendola said one of the biggest factors when the offense is clicking is that he and his teammates simply like playing together.
"We’re confident in our abilities and what our ideas are to help move the ball," he said. "We’ve been working together for a long time. We’re doing all we can to make this machine go."
That, and blocking out distractions.
The Broncos have taken a few public and social media swipes at Brady and Gronkowski in recent days, most notably saying that the Patriots quarterback complains often to the referees, and that Gronkowski is notorious for using his frame to push off.
"It’s just part of the game. I’ve just got to be aware of it," Gronkowski said. "(I’ve) maybe just got to step up my game a little bit. Maybe throw a juke, I mean I don’t know how many jukes I’ve got, but I’ve just got to be aware of it. It’s football and it’s just part of the game."