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.”