Last December, the Patriots beat the Jets 45-3 in one of the most lopsided football games you'll ever see. Just six weeks later, those same Patriots lost to those same Jets in the playoffs in a game the Jets, for the most part, controlled.
The reasons were many, but none were bigger than the lack of presence of Aaron Hernandez.
The then-rookie was a major factor in both of the Patriots' regular-season games against the Jets. He caught six passes for 101 yards in the late September matchup, and he had three catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in the 45-3 shellacking. While his numbers weren't as impressive in that December meeting, his mere presence helped draw coverage away from Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Rob Gronkowski (combined 11 receptions for 156 yards and two touchdowns) and also opened up opportunities for Danny Woodhead, who had four catches for 104 yards out of the backfield. With Hernandez taking one or two defenders deep down the field, Woodhead had a ton of open space to run wild.
This week, with the Jets on the verge of falling into a tailspin, if Hernandez can't be his normal, effective self, it just may save New York.
For evidence, look back to the playoff matchup. Hernandez missed the final two regular-season games with a hip injury, and he returned for that postseason game. He clearly lacked the same burst that made him one of the most dangerous tight end receiving threats in the league all season long. At the end of the night, Hernandez had one catch for four yards.
His inability to have an impact had a ripple effect throughout the entire offense. Tom Brady never got into a rhythm, and the offense was essentially stagnant until the game was all but decided in the final minutes. Brady did complete 29 passes, but no receiver topped 65 receiving yards. The unit, as a whole, looked nothing like the one that tore apart the Jets' defense just a month earlier.
This season, Hernandez has 14 catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns in two games. In those games, Gronkowski was able to run free, as well, catching 10 passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns. Since then, in two games without Hernandez, he's been slightly less effective with eight catches for 124 yards and one score. He was also the target on one of Brady's four interceptions in Buffalo.
While Hernandez will play on Sunday, nobody outside of the coaching staff has seen him run all week. He will need to be explsoive and quick — anything less will hurt the Pats' offense. Of course, the coaches have enough confidence in Hernandez to have him suit up. In fact, he wasn't even on the field early on Sunday for evaluation with team trainers, opening the door for optimism that he'll be able to have an impact. He's proven in the past that he's a weapon for which the Jets have no answer, and if he can play at anywhere close to 100 percent, New York may be in some serious trouble.
In a matchup with the big names of Brady, Bill Belichick, Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan, it may be Hernandez who has the biggest impact.