After managing to survive with a host of inexperienced receiving options, the New England Patriots gladly welcomed back star tight end Rob Gronkowski in Week 7.
Gronkowski had missed the first six games of the 2013 season while recovering from forearm and back injuries.
In his first game back, quarterback Tom Brady targeted Gronkowski 17 times and the tight end recorded eight catches for 144 yards in an overtime loss to the New York Jets. The Miami Dolphins limited Gronkowski's effectiveness in Week 8, as he only made two receptions for 27 yards.
But Gronkowski and the Patriots offense exploded the following week against the Steelers. He recorded nine catches on 10 targets for 143 yards and his first touchdown of the season in a 55-31 victory.
"Obviously, he's a significant player for us offensively, a big target in the passing game," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in a conference call with Charlotte media. "I think he's definitely helped us. He doesn't have a lot of football work this year; it's all been in the last few weeks. I think he's worked hard and continued to get better."
Said head coach Ron Rivera about Gronkowski: "He's a big, physical tight end. He uses his size very nicely. Some of the things you see him do, it's almost like a basketball player boxing you out. He has enough speed to get vertical on you, and he catches the ball very well."
There's no doubt Gronkowski makes the New England more difficult to defend. He's a primary target for Brady, and the attention he attracts opens things up for the other New England receivers.
"I'm just going out there, focusing on my job, what I've got to do to make the offense a better offense, and make sure I do my own job and try to make plays when my number is called," Gronkowski said in a conference call. "So far, if the offense is opening up that's great. Everyone on the offense is just trying to do their job so we can work together as a team and get the chemistry down and work together as an offense."
This is the third consecutive week the Panthers have prepared for an elite tight end.
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis left last week's game in the second quarter with a concussion. The week before, Carolina contended with the Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez for four quarters, but the future Hall-of-Famer was only effective for two.
After a first half in which he recorded five catches for 77 yards, the Panthers limited Gonzalez to one reception for four yards in the second half.
Will the Panthers employ that second-half plan again this week?
"I'm not going to tell you that," Rivera answered with a smile. "There are some similarities as to who they are as players."
"It might be like Atlanta," Kuechly said. "It might not. (Gronkowski and Gonzalez) are a little different. It'll be challenging."