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Associated Press
New England tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrates with the AFC championship trophy after beating Baltimore on Jan. 22 in Foxborough, Mass.

‘Gronk’ having Super year

Patriots expect star tight end to play with injury

– The sign outside the restaurant a mile up the road from where Rob Gronkowski scores touchdowns has a flashing suggestion for motorists: “HONK FOR GRONK!”

Plenty of car horns will be blaring if the fun-loving marquee tight end returns next week as a Super Bowl champion.

If his season so far is any indication, Gronkowski will have a major role when the New England Patriots face the New York Giants on Sunday in the NFL championship game.

One sign of his importance? Much of the Super Bowl talk to date has focused on Gronkowski’s balky left ankle.

“He’s had a lot of production,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s had a lot of touchdowns. He’s had a lot of good blocks. I don’t know what a ‘game-changer’ is, but he’s definitely made some plays.”

A possible game-changer is a tight end who is so good after the catch that he has 21 receptions of more than 20 yards among his total of 90. Or a player who scored three touchdowns in a seven-point win over Indianapolis. Or a 265-pound steamroller who mows down defenders on the way to the end zone. Or even a battering blocker who springs teammates for big gains.

Gronkowski has done all that. And that makes him a potential game-changer.

“No question,” wide receiver Matthew Slater said. “He’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime talent with the skill set that he has. So we love getting him the ball in his hands, and he loves having the ball in his hands, and he does special things when he has the ball in his hands.”

Gronkowski’s teammates are confident he’ll play in the Super Bowl after suffering a high left ankle sprain in the third quarter of a 23-20 win over the Ravens in the AFC championship game.

He skipped practice on Thursday and Friday, but Slater said: “There’s not too many guys tougher than him out there. So I would imagine he’s going to do everything he can to be out there.”

The 2010 second-round draft pick from Arizona set an NFL single-season record for tight ends with 17 touchdown catches this season.

New York’s cornerbacks are all at least six inches shorter than the 6-foot-6 Gronkowski, and the Patriots have another dangerous tight end in Aaron Hernandez.

So what’s the plan for stopping Gronkowski?

“Get a ladder, probably,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin joked. “This is a very gifted tight end … He’s had an outstanding career and rewritten some of the record books … and has done a very good job of making the big-play catch as well. He’s become someone that Brady looks to go to in certain areas of the field as well, certainly in the red zone.”