Memory of being passed over by hometown Bills — twice! — drives Gronkowski

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FOXBORO -- When the Patriots took the field for the second half of their Week 13 meeting with the Bills, they had two clear objectives: 1) Run the football and 2) get the ball to Rob Gronkowski. They won by 20.

When the two teams played again at Gillette Stadium on Christmas Eve, they opened up by really only attempting one of those two things. Four of their first five offensive touches went to running back Dion Lewis, and Gronkowski didn't see a target sent his way until the second-to-last play of the first quarter.

PATRIOTS 36, BILLS 17

Were the Patriots getting away from the game's best tight end because they feared retribution for his hit on Tre'Davious White, a hit that earned him a one-game suspension?

Not exactly.

Despite the slow start, he finished the game with five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, continuing a run of dominant performances over the last month (with a week-long suspension sprinkled in). One of those performances, Week 13 against the Bills, he had nine catches for 147 yards, sending him into Sunday with 61 catches and 11 touchdowns in 12 games against Buffalo. 

Even for him, those numbers stand out. On Sunday night, he explained that there may be a little extra motivation when he sees New Engalnd's AFC East rivals to the north. It goes back to 2010.

"It's cool," Gronkowski said, "when you're hometown team passed on you twice in that draft and you kind of remember that still . . . I remember."

The star second-round pick was one of the focuses of the game headed in, not just because of his Buffalo roots and his history against the Bills. There was the revenge factor, and the Bills had opportunities to take shots at him for what he did to White, as offensive lineman Richie Incognito suggested earlier this week that they might.

But when Gronkowski caught his first pass of the game, a seven-yard completion for a first down, the Bills did nothing to rough him up. They had another chance to do something dirty if they wanted in the second quarter when he made a nine-yard reception mid-way through the second quarter, but they didn't. He was held up by Buffalo's first tackler, and the second hit him shoulder-to-shoulder.

The Bills captains and Gronkowski actually hugged it out before the coin toss. And that might've been the preferred means of dealing with him late in the second quarter when he made one of the more acrobatic touchdown catches of his career. 

During their second drive of the second quarter, after Tom Brady handed the Bills a pick-six, Gronkowski aligned wide on safety Micah Hyde, reeled in Brady's pass one-handed, dotted both feet in-bounds and crossed the goal line for the game-tying score. 

Gronkowski nearly had a second score when the Bills decided to go with the maybe-we-should-just-go-ahead-and-hug-him route. Running down the seam, Brady threw one Gronkowski's way when the tight end was smothered by safety Trae Elston (who was in the game for Hyde, who was injured moments earlier when he tackled Gronkowski and landed awkwardly) to pick up a flag for pass interference. 

What a difference a few weeks makes. Gronkowski was so incensed by a lack of pass-interference penalties against the Bills that he briefly lost it and got himself banned for a week. This time around? He got a flag . . . and politely golf-clapped. 

That play led to a Mike Gillislee one-yard touchdown and made the score 23-16. The Patriots were off and running and went on to secure their 12th win of the season. That made it eight consecutive seasons of 12 wins or more for the Patriots. 

Provided that statistic after the game, Gronkowski paused. The wheels were turning. 

"It's unbelievable," he said, smiling. "If you think about it, I got here eight years ago so maybe that's the reason."

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