Last week, Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was self-deprecating while bringing up the topic of his drops in the end zone. When posed with a lighthearted question about asking Rob Gronkowski to share the wealth with his mass of touchdown catches, Hernandez smirked and responded, "I've just got to worry about catching them."
Hernandez made sure of it Sunday in Denver, where the Patriots ran away with a 41-23 victory against the Broncos. The second-year tight end hauled in a one-yard score in the second quarter that trimmed Denver's lead to 16-14 and started a run of 27 consecutive points for the Patriots.
But as Hernandez grasped the football, he eyed it all the way in and tucked it away to keep it in his possession. There was no way he was letting that ball hit the turf, and the touchdown really helped his day get in motion.
Hernandez had career highs with nine receptions and 129 yards, and he topped the century mark for the third time in his first two seasons.
The timing of his performance was important, too, as the Patriots took the field without wide receiver Deion Branch for the first time this season. And when Gronkowski wasn't staying in to help block the Broncos' excellent pair of pass rushers, the Denver defense keyed on the hulking tight end who spent the last two months treating defenses like second-class citizens.
"Aaron's a heck of a player," wide receiver Wes Welker said. "He's tough to cover one-on-one, and doing different things out there. He's a big mismatch for a lot of defenses, so getting him involved and him making the plays he did is huge for us. I'm sure he'll continue to do that."
It's not like Hernandez's big game came out of nowhere, though. In the three games prior to Sunday, Hernandez had 18 receptions (the second most over a three-game stretch in his career) for 189 yards. His statistical boost could be attributed to the health of his knee, which has continued to get stronger over the course of the season. And if he continues this pace, it will clearly help the Patriots create more mismatches against opposing defenses.
"He played great," Gronkowski said. "He juked a lot of guys, got a lot of extra yards. I loved watching him do that kind of stuff, so it's cool."