FOXBOROUGH, Mass.: Strong safety T.J. Ward took shots at NFL rules Sunday because he believes they forced him to take a shot at the legs of New England Patriots two-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski during the third quarter of the Browns’ 27-26 loss at Gillette Stadium.
Gronkowski caught a pass from quarterback Tom Brady and was picking up extra yardage for a gain of 21 when Ward dived into Gronkowski’s legs. Ward’s right shoulder collided with the side of Gronkowski’s right knee at the Patriots’ 45-yard line with 8:27 left in the third quarter. According to reports, the Patriots fear Gronkowski suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament, meaning one of their best players will likely be sidelined when they try to make a run in the playoffs.
Ward was not penalized for the hit, which was legal. He aimed for Gronkowski’s legs because he wanted to avoid a potential penalty and/or fine that he thought could’ve come as a result of hitting Gronkowski in the head. Ward said he would’ve “possibly” gone higher on the hit if the rules were different.
“When [the NFL] set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen,” Ward said. “This can happen if you have those types of situations. It’s pretty much inevitable, and they forced our hand with this one.
“I’ve been fined three times, and I don’t like playing for free. If you go ask anybody in this league would they like to play for free, ‘No.’ Repeat offenders, they’re starting to suspend people. ... I can’t risk that. I won’t risk that, and I’ve got to play within the rules, point blank.”
After absorbing the hit, Gronkowski had to be helped onto a cart by fellow Patriots tight end Matthew Mulligan. Ward said he prayed for Gronkowski. He and Browns nose tackle Phil Taylor shook Gronkowski’s hand before he was whisked away on the cart.
Ward said he wanted to let Gronkowski know that the hit was not malicious.
“My intention is never to hurt anyone,” Ward said. “That’s not what this game is about. That’s not how I play. I hate to see guys go down with any type of injury. I just wanted him to know whether he accepted it or not, it wasn’t an intentional hit to injure him. But we have to play this game the way that they force us to, and unfortunately it [resulted] in an injury for him.”
On CBS’ telecast, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was shown giving Ward a dirty look as Ward walked by him after the play. Ward said no words were exchanged, and he dismissed the suggestion that Belichick gave him a death stare.
“Yeah, I saw him,” Ward said. “I didn’t say anything to him, but I saw him. … No, Belichick didn’t look at me any type of way.”
Gordon sets mark
Receiver Josh Gordon set the franchise single-season receiving yardage record, getting the 41 yards he needed with 48 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Suspended for the first two games for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, Gordon finished with seven catches for 151 yards and a total of 1,400 yards, needing just 11 games to break the mark held by Braylon Edwards (1,289 in 2007).
“It means nothing to me if we can’t win as a team while doing it,” Gordon said in a statement from the team.
Gordon’s 774 receiving yards in the past four games is a league record, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and his seven 100-yard games are a team record. He is the only Browns receiver to hit 100 yards in four consecutive games and the first Brown to notch a touchdown catch in four in a row since Kevin Johnson in 2001.
“He’s a helluva player,” said Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, matched up with Gordon. “He’s going to make some noise in this league.”
Gordon scored on an 80-yard reception; 12 of his 13 career touchdowns have been of 20 or more yards.
“Gordon’s an outstanding receiver. He welcomes the competition. He knew he’d get double-teamed sometimes,” Browns quarterback Jason Campbell said. “He’s got so much confidence right now he can win, regardless. We don’t want to put ourselves in position where we were forcing it to him, but we still want to give him opportunities to make plays. He’s making a big name for himself in this league.”
The 80-yarder will make the highlights, but Gordon’s most clutch catch was a 19-yarder on third-and-17 from the New England 40 with 3:32 to go. Including running 34 yards on a reverse, he accounted for 53 of the Browns’ 80 yards in their touchdown drive.
“We knew it was a critical play,” Campbell said of Gordon’s 19-yard catch. “Once I saw the coverage I knew I was going to go to Josh, and he would have an opportunity to win.”
Campbell’s best day
Campbell threw for a career-high 391 yards, the sixth-highest total in Browns history. Registering his 11th 300-yard game of his career, he completed 29 of 44 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions and finished with a 116.6 rating, his third more than 100 in five starts this season.
It seemed all the more significant since Campbell wasn’t cleared to practice until Thursday after suffering a concussion against the Pittsburgh Steelers that kept him out a week ago against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He also suffered a rib injury Nov. 3 against the Baltimore Ravens and aggravated it against the Steelers.
“That’s the healthiest I’ve felt since the Kansas City game,” Campbell said. “The Cincinnati game was tough, it was tough to fight through it. Coming back in the Pittsburgh game I felt better, but I still wasn’t healed yet. Missing the game last week healed my mind and it healed my body. I was out there to play, I wasn’t worried about trying to protect myself.”
Pick for Jackson
Browns inside linebacker/defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson notched his first interception of the season with 3:31 remaining in the first quarter. It was the eighth of Jackson’s eight-year career; he recorded two in 2012.
As agonizing as the loss seemed, Jackson departed with a positive feeling.
“I hate that we lost, but I feel better about this game than I have about any loss all year,” he said. “They’re in the Super Bowl talk every year. We’ve played the defending Super Bowl champs [Baltimore] tough the first time, beat ‘em the second game and now we face New England. When they get to the postseason, teams are going to watch how we defended them, how we attacked them on offense to figure out how to move the ball on them. I’m fully energized by this, by the way we played.”
Mingo ends drought
Browns first-round pick Barkevious Mingo showed his promise and rookie struggles against the Patriots.
In the second quarter, he was beaten by running back James Develin on a wheel route for a 31-yard gain. Two plays later, he dropped Tom Brady on an 8-yard sack. It was Mingo’s first sack since Oct. 27. Mingo also added four tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. He now leads the Browns with five sacks.
Browns left guard John Greco left the game with a sprained knee in the second quarter and did not return. Greco got up slowly after the first play. Jason Pinkston replaced Greco and played for the first time this season after missing the final 10 games of 2012 with a blood clot and being activated from injured reserve-designated on Nov. 11 with a high ankle sprain.
Coach Rob Chudzinski said running back Willis McGahee suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter.
Backup QB revealed
The Browns chose Caleb Hanie to serve as their No. 2 quarterback behind Campbell.
Alex Tanney was the other option, but the Browns made him inactive. The team signed Hanie, 28, off the street Tuesday and plucked Tanney, 26, off the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 26.
The Browns signed both Hanie and Tanney as contingency plans because Campbell and Brandon Weeden were dealing with the concussions they suffered Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, respectively. Weeden sat out Sunday.
Although Tanney had a week head start over Hanie to learn the Browns’ playbook, Hanie is in his sixth NFL season and has four regular-season starts on his resume, all of which were losses for the Chicago Bears in 2011. Tanney, who’s best known for his trick-shot YouTube video that went viral two years ago, has never appeared in an NFL regular-season game.
Inactives, lineup changes
Weeden, Tanney, offensive tackle Martin Wallace, guard Garrett Gilkey, offensive tackle Reid Fragel, tight end Keavon Milton and wide receiver Josh Cooper were inactive for the Browns.
Inside linebackers Craig Robertson (sprained right knee) and Tank Carder (sprained shoulder) were active despite heading into the weekend listed as questionable. Robertson returned to the starting lineup after missing the previous two games. Carder missed one game.
John Hughes started at right defensive end with Desmond Bryant out for the season after undergoing a cardiac ablation Friday to correct an irregular heartbeat.
Tight end Jordan Cameron became the first Brown to catch a TD pass from four different passers in a season and the first to do it in the NFL since Carolina receiver Steve Smith in 2007. One of Cameron’s TDs came from punter Spencer Lanning on a fake field goal. Cameron totaled a career-high 121 receiving yards. … Cameron and Gordon became the Browns’ first pair to record 100-yard games in the same game since Sept. 16, 2007 (Kellen Winslow and Edwards). … Linebacker Paul Kruger recorded two sacks, giving him four multiple-sack games in his career and 4.5 this season.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.