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T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart saw what was coming, but the Broncos' starting safeties couldn't do anything about it.
They had to watch as New England tight end Rob Gronkowski barreled his way through the Denver defense in the fourth quarter Sunday. Ward (ankle) and Stewart (MCL) looked on as cornerback Chris Harris scrambled to play safety in the fourth quarter, mixing in alongside a couple of little-known backups.
"It was scary," said Stewart, who reinjured his left ankle midway through the third quarter. "Knowing you can't help your team, and knowing what's coming, it was so loud in the stadium and you can't tell them. It was frustrating."
With the Denver starting safeties out because of injuries, Gronkowski, who had just four catches through three quarters, took over. He found holes behind the Broncos' linebackers and in front of the safeties.
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On New England's final two drives he had four catches for 77 yards, including an incredible 4-yard touchdown reception that beat double coverage to draw New England within 20-18 with only 12 seconds left. On the two-point conversion, though, Tom Brady did not look his way.
With 2½ minutes left, Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib knocked away Brady's fourth-down heave to Gronkowski, keeping the score at 20-12. Talib had tight coverage on Gronkowski, who was lined up on the right side and broke to the end zone. Backup safeties Shiloh Keo and Josh Bush converged on the tight end as Talib tipped away the ball amid a triple-team in the back of the end zone.
On the Patriots' final drive, Gronkowski split double coverage over the middle for a 40-yard reception, making it first-and-goal at the Denver 10.
Facing fourth-and-4, Brady went to his money man again.
Lined up on the left side and double-teamed at the line of scrimmage, Gronkowski went straight to the back of the end zone then turned left to shake off Harris and caught the ball as he broke open.
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"It was a double-coverage call. It was an outside call, so I thought my safety would have me, but Gronk just made a play," Harris, who was nursing a sore shoulder, said after the AFC title game. "He was double covered. I mean, double covered.
"Gronk is one of the most dominate players in the league, and Brady just made a great throw. I was learning another position on the run because we had no more safeties."
Asked about the touchdown play, Gronkowski said the desperation was there, editing himself to reporters.
"Get ... open. That's what I'm thinking," he said. "It's not like we were going out there and playing some defense that has nobodies on it."
Que backups Keo, who joined the Broncos in December after he sent defensive coordinator Wade Phillips a "didn't want to pick me up huh?" tweet to his former Texans coach, and Bush, who has bounced around the Broncos' active and practice-squad rosters and was reactivated in December, which triggered Keo's tweet to Phillips.
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Bush was waived in October to make room for the return of offensive tackle Tyler Polumbus, then rejoined the active roster for the final five regular-season games. Keo was Houston's fifth-round pick out of Idaho in 2011; Bush a sixth-round pick by the Jets in 2012 out of Wake Forest.
"I kind of got thrown out there with the game on the line," Keo said. "You can't really think about getting too hyped. ... This is the best defense in the league, and they expect you to make plays. If they didn't believe in me, I wouldn't be here. Forget that whole Twitter thing."
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Gronkowski, who dealt with cramping throughout the game, was targeted 15 times but not on New England's two-point try. He lined up right and Brady threw to slot receiver Julian Edelman over the middle. Bradley Roby intercepted the tipped pass.
"They, as a defense when I was lined up more inside, definitely jammed me a little bit," said Gronkowski, who finished with eight receptions for 144 yards. "I haven't seen it all the time, but they did a good job at it."
Ward, who was injured during the second half when a lineman rolled up on his leg, and Stewart "guarantee" they will play in Super Bowl 50 in two weeks.
"If anyone in that stadium said they weren't nervous regardless of who was out there, they'd be lying," Ward said of the final minutes. "The only reason I was nervous was because I wasn't out there and on the sideline. ... Those guys (Keo and Bush), I got a lot of respect for them coming in off the street, learning our system and making plays."