The Patriots find themselves in a position all too familiar to last season. Not just because the Super Bowl is one win away or because they’ll have to beat the Ravens to get there.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski once again suffered an injury, this one even more serious as he’ll officially miss the rest of the playoffs after breaking his left forearm in the team’s 41-28 win over the Texans on Sunday. That means more work for fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was forced to step up for a hobbled Gronkowski during last year’s push to the Super Bowl.
“It’s hard to replace a player like him because he’s a freak of nature,” Hernandez told WEEI.com. “Everyone has to step up, and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling.”
Hernandez did his part in doing so last postseason. Over the course of the team’s AFC Championship win over the Ravens and Super Bowl loss to the Giants, he led the Patriots with a total of 15 receptions and 25 targets. Receiver Wes Welker and Gronkowski were tied for a distant second in terms of targets with only 23 looks for the entire playoff run, which includes the Patriots’ win over the Broncos in the divisional round.
Gronkowski missed some time in last year’s AFC title game against the Ravens with a leg injury that subsequently made him ineffective two weeks later in the team’s 21-17 Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Gronkowski, who led New England with 11 touchdown catches this season, went down on Sunday against the Texans after breaking his forearm only eight offensive plays in.
It was the same arm that he broke on Nov. 18 against the Indianapolis Colts, forcing him to miss five games. On Monday, a second operation was performed on the arm.
However, one former Patriot doesn’t believe Hernandez is a downgrade from Gronkowski. In fact, former safety Rodney Harrison — now an NFL analyst for NBC — made a comment on the Dan Patrick Show on Monday morning, saying Hernandez “scares me more” than Gronkowski in terms of being a matchup nightmare for New England.
With the help of the Patriots’ no-huddle offense, Hernandez had six catches for 85 yards in the Patriots’ win over the Texans.
Quarterback Tom Brady has confidence in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ ability to find playmakers in the absence of others.
“That’s what Josh does better than anybody else that I’ve been around; his ability to adjust like he’s done all season,” Brady said. “That’s just the way it’s gone. I think we’ve played a bunch of games now, we’ve never really been fully healthy, and obviously now won’t be, but you know what? We’ve still got a very good team and there’s different guys that step up and make those big time plays, whether it’s Wes (Welker) or Brandon (Lloyd) or Deion (Branch) or Shane (Vereen) or Rid (Stevan Ridley) or Woody (Danny Woodhead), Aaron Hernandez had another big game. They’ve got to stop all of us, and that’s what we’ve got to continue to do this week.”
Hernandez is simply humbled to be in a position to win the Super Bowl the year after losing it, something only the 1972 Miami Dolphins have ever accomplished.
“It’s an honor,” Hernandez said. “We still have one more to go to get to the big dance. So we’ve got to keep playing and come to play next week.”
Meanwhile, fellow Gator alum Brandon Spikes will be just as important to the Patriots’ defense as he was last year. The team’s middle linebacker made a fourth-quarter interception of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in last year’s playoff contest and forced a fumble in the Super Bowl. He was second on the team with 26 tackles in last year’s playoffs, including a sack and two passes defensed.
He had six tackles on Sunday against Houston, and although it doesn’t show up in the stat book, this unforgettable celebration dance after a Texans fumble that was overturned after review.