By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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.
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
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