Gronkowski cleared to play in Super Bowl after concussion

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared from the concussion protocol and will play in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Gronkowski participated fully in practice on Thursday. Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise also practiced after being cleared from the concussion protocol. Malcolm Butler (illness) and Brandon King (knee) also participated in the workout.

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Gronk said he is “ready to roll” and has no limitations. He had been sidelined since taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jacksonville’s Barry Church in the first half of New England’s AFC championship game win.

The All-Pro tight end missed last year’s Super Bowl win over Atlanta after undergoing back surgery.

Gronkowski led the team in receiving during the regular season with 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

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Super Bowl 52 might come down to Gronk or Ertz

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) Rob Gronkowski gets to play in this year’s Super Bowl after missing last year’s game with a bad back. Zach Ertz gets the chance to match his wife, Julie , a soccer star who’s already won a world championship.

Super Bowl 52 could come down to which of these terrific tight ends shines brighter.

The two had similar statistics and impact on their team’s fortunes this season.

Gronkowski led the New England Patriots with 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

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Ertz led the Philadelphia Eagles with 74 catches for 824 yards and eight TDs – double his previous career best.

Ertz also has 11 grabs for 125 yards in the playoffs and Gronkowski has seven catches for 102 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs despite missing most of the AFC championship against Jacksonville after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Barry Church before halftime.

That led to concerns Gronkowski might miss his second straight Super Bowl. He was sidelined for last year’s 34-28 overtime win against Atlanta after undergoing back surgery.

Gronk, however, returned to practice Thursday and said he is “ready to roll” after clearing the concussion protocol.

He said he never doubted he’d get to play Sunday.

“There was no reason to get frustrated,” Gronkowski said. “We had that extra week, which was awesome.”

The return of the All-Pro tight end gives Tom Brady another key option against a punishing Eagles defense that ranked fourth in the league.

“He’s a dynamic player. He means a ton to our offense. He really has since he got to our team. It’s always great when he’s out there,” Brady said.

“I’ve played with him a long time, I’ve thrown him a lot of footballs. He knows exactly what to do, he knows where to expect the ball, when to expect it. He’s just a tremendous player for our team.”

Ertz is just as important to Nick Foles and the Eagles’ offense.

The fifth-year pro made his first Pro Bowl this season, leading all NFC tight ends in receptions. He added eight catches for 93 yards in the NFC championship game against Minnesota.

Despite his breakout season and postseason, Ertz knows he won’t be the best tight end on the field Sunday. Gronkowski led all NFL tight ends in receiving yards for the fourth time.

Gronk is the gold standard.

“He’s a beast after the catch, I think that kind of separates him from all the other tight ends,” Ertz said. “And he’s also able to be open even when he’s not open because he’s got such a big frame and extremely good ball skills. And obviously Tom Brady is a phenomenal quarterback, too, but even without Tom, I think he would still be doing the same type of things regardless of where he was.”

Ertz knows the numbers off the top of his head, too.

“He has all the (single season) tight end records in the league,” Ertz said. He’s got the yards – 1,327 – and he’s got the touchdowns – 17 – he’s just a phenomenal player.”

With a pair of Super Bowl rings.

That’s what Ertz really covets, a world championship like the one his wife won in 2015 as a midfielder for the World Cup-winning U.S. national soccer team.

“Julie won a World Cup two years ago,” Ertz said, “so I need to hold up my end of the bargain.”

The “It” couple in the NFL was married last March after a romance that started when Julie, then Julie Johnston, was an emerging soccer star at Santa Clara and Zach was playing at Stanford.

The two were apart when the Eagles clinched their spot in the Super Bowl with a 38-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Julie was in San Diego for a national team match against Denmark. She was among the players who scored in the 5-1 victory.

Afterward, when she was told Zach was going to the Super Bowl, she burst into tears .

“Zach knew I was there obviously in spirit and I was praying for him and I was excited for him and cheering him from miles away,” she said.

“It’s a part of our job and we sacrifice a lot, and time’s the biggest thing. But to find out that they are going to the Super Bowl was amazing, exciting, emotional. It’s really cool to see your loved one’s hard work pay off.”

Ertz said it was hard for him watching other players’ celebrate with their wives “but seeing that video kind of showed me that she was struggling not being there, too.

“And it was extremely difficult for us not being together like it is anytime we’re not together. But she’s here now, I’m lucky she’s here. I’m blessed that she’s here and I’m excited hopefully to be able to experience that again.”

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AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Brady practices without glove as Gronk returns to practice

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Two of the New England Patriots’ most important players are getting healthier as they prepare to head to Minneapolis for Super Bowl week.

After getting stitches in his right hand and thumb prior to the AFC championship game last week, quarterback Tom Brady was on the practice field Saturday, gripping the ball without a glove on his throwing hand. Tight end Rob Gronkowski also was at practice, returning to workouts after starting the week in the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Both are positive signs for New England, which has just one practice remaining in Foxborough before the team heads to Minnesota to resume its Super Bowl preparations. Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, who also missed practice time this week with a concussion, joined Gronk in the team stretching period that is open to reporters.

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Gronkowski hadn’t been on the practice field since his second-quarter exit from the AFC title game following a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jaguars safety Barry Church.

“It’s always great to have him out there. He’s a great player, a great person, a great teammate and a big part of what we do,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “It obviously hurts when he’s not out there for a lot of reasons. But he’s doing the best he can do and we’re all hopeful.”

While Gronkowski and Wise were on the field, it’s unclear whether they have been officially cleared from the protocol. The team isn’t required to file its next injury report until Wednesday.

Gronk played just eight games last season and missed the Patriots’ entire playoff run after undergoing season-ending back surgery.

Since the start of last season, New England is 12-1 without Gronk. But last season it had Martellus Bennett to fill in the gap without him. Bennett signed with Green Bay in the offseason, before being released by the Packers in November. He then re-signed with the Patriots, but only appeared in two games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Brady said he wants to spend the rest of the time leading up to the Super Bowl avoiding all possible distractions.

That includes not talking about a new series that debuted on Facebook recently and provides viewers a rare glimpse at his life off the field.

“What? Let’s talk about distractions,” Brady joked when he was asked about the series Saturday. “We’ll stick to football this week, too. I like that no distractions part.”

Though this will be Brady’s eighth trip to the Super Bowl, the 40-year-old said he still has an appreciation for what it takes to be playing at this point of the season.

“I’ve never taken anything like this for granted, and I think we’re all very fortunate to be in this game,” he said. “Being a part of a couple of these losses, those are pretty tough to swallow, but I think you realize how much effort you have to put in to prepare. It’s a very unique environment, unique game, and you have to be at your best. But in order to do that, you have to prepare as well as you possibly can.”

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Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower