Two of the New England Patriots' most important players are getting healthier as they prepare to head to Minneapolis for Super Bowl week.
After getting stitches in his right hand and thumb prior to the AFC championship game last week, quarterback Tom Brady was on the practice field Saturday, gripping the ball without a glove on his throwing hand. Tight end Rob Gronkowski also was at practice, returning to workouts after starting the week in the NFL's concussion protocol.
Both are positive signs for New England, which has just one practice remaining in Foxborough before the team heads to Minnesota to resume its Super Bowl preparations. Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, who also missed practice time this week with a concussion, joined Gronk in the team stretching period that is open to reporters.
Gronkowski hadn't been on the practice field since his second-quarter exit from the AFC title game following a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jaguars safety Barry Church.
"It's always great to have him out there. He's a great player, a great person, a great teammate and a big part of what we do,'' Brady said of Gronkowski. "It obviously hurts when he's not out there for a lot of reasons. But he's doing the best he can do and we're all hopeful.''
While Gronkowski and Wise were on the field, it's unclear whether they have been officially cleared from the protocol. The team isn't required to file its next injury report until Wednesday.
Gronk played just eight games last season and missed the Patriots' entire playoff run after undergoing season-ending back surgery.
Since the start of last season, New England is 12-1 without Gronk. But last season it had Martellus Bennett to fill in the gap without him. Bennett signed with Green Bay in the offseason, before being released by the Packers in November. He then re-signed with the Patriots, but only appeared in two games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Brady said he wants to spend the rest of the time leading up to the Super Bowl avoiding all possible distractions.
That includes not talking about a new series that debuted on Facebook recently and provides viewers a rare glimpse at his life off the field.
"What? Let's talk about distractions,'' Brady joked when he was asked about the series Saturday. "We'll stick to football this week, too. I like that no distractions part.''
Though this will be Brady's eighth trip to the Super Bowl, the 40-year-old said he still has an appreciation for what it takes to be playing at this point of the season.
"I've never taken anything like this for granted, and I think we're all very fortunate to be in this game,'' he said. "Being a part of a couple of these losses, those are pretty tough to swallow, but I think you realize how much effort you have to put in to prepare. It's a very unique environment, unique game, and you have to be at your best. But in order to do that, you have to prepare as well as you possibly can.''