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In the 16 games of the 2008 regular season, Patriots tight ends had 31 touches for 302 yards and two touchdowns. In a single game last Saturday, the divisional-round playoff against the Broncos, New England tight ends touched the ball 19 times for 261 yards and four TDs. "Yeah, tight end was always a rough spot for us," wideout Wes Welker said. "No more."
Apparently Bill Belichick knew what he was doing on draft day in 2010, when, with no downfield threat on the roster other than an aging Randy Moss, he used only one of his 12 choices on a wideout—a project named Taylor Price out of Ohio University, in the third round. Price never panned out and was waived in December. But Belichick did choose two tight ends in that draft: strongman Rob Gronkowski, a prototypical blocking tight end out of Arizona, in the second round, and athletic Aaron Hernandez, Tim Tebow's tight end at Florida, in the fourth. Tight end. A perennial wasteland for the Patriots.
In New England they do personnel things a bit differently. Since the Patriots blew a first-round pick on Laurence Maroney in 2006, running back has been a waiver-wire and squeeze-a-year-out-of-old-guys position. The secondary is a weird jigsaw puzzle, with wide receivers—first Troy Brown, now Julian Edelman—playing significant snaps. Now New England is rewriting the rules on building explosive offenses. Who says you need Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald to stretch the field when you've got NBA small forwards like Hernandez and Gronkowski creating matchup problems with every defense? "Athletes, man, just tremendous athletes," said Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil, shaking his head as the clock struck midnight on Tebowmania.
New England's 45--10 pummeling of Denver at Foxborough was just another instance of Belichick's saying to the rest of the league: I know we haven't won the Super Bowl in seven years, but I'm still going to do things my way and take my chances. Since 2001 the Patriots have averaged 13.5 wins per year (including the postseason) thanks to that kind of thinking. Well, that thinking plus Tom Brady.
On Sunday, Brady will play in his sixth AFC Championship Game—the 14--3 Patriots host the 13--4 Ravens at Gillette Stadium—and in his Montana-like career he has never been better than he was on Saturday night. Completing 14 passes to tight ends, 10 to wideouts and two to running backs, Brady threw for 363 yards and an NFL playoff-record-tying six touchdowns. If the Ravens are going to beat him, they'll have to figure out a better way to blanket Gronkowski (10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns against Denver) and divine what the heck Hernandez is.
Against Denver the Patriots were in a two-tight-end set all night. Or, rather, the two tight ends were on the field almost all night. (Hernandez missed the last series after taking a hit to the head.) In the first two series Gronkowski and Hernandez played all 12 snaps, Gronkowski mostly as a traditional tight end and Hernandez at six different positions. In fact on the five plays of the first series Hernandez lined up, in succession, at fullback; receiver tight to the formation; slot back as a sidecar to Brady; running back, weaving left out of a lone-back formation for a 43-yard gain; and flanker on the left side, taking a linebacker with him on a quick out and opening the middle for Welker, who caught a seven-yard touchdown pass. At 6'1" and 245, Hernandez is fast and quick out of cuts, a superb complement to the brutish 6'6", 265-pound Gronkowski, who blocks as well as he catches.
"We didn't have any backs in the game in that personnel grouping—we just had the three receivers and the two tight ends," Belichick said. "That's not something we've done a lot of. You see all those receivers on the field, and you're not really thinking too much about the running game defensively. So we tried to pop a couple of runs in there just to keep them honest."
Run the ball or catch it. Now a defense has to prepare for the Patriots' tight ends to do either. Together, Hernandez and Gronkowski had 169 receptions during the season, an NFL record for a pair of tight ends and the same number as the Lions' Johnson and the No. 2 wideout in Detroit, Nate Burleson. The New England duo's 14 catches on Saturday night produced 200 yards of offense (who wouldn't take a 14.3-yard average from the two top wideouts, never mind tight ends?) and those four touchdowns. And Hernandez was New England's leading rusher, with 61 yards on five carries.
"These two guys are changing the game," says veteran guard Brian Waters, who played 11 seasons in Kansas City, nine of them alongside Tony Gonzalez, before signing with the Patriots as a free agent in 2011. "Greatest tight end of all time," Waters says of Gonzalez. "But it's different with these guys. It's difficult to match up with Gronk because of his blocking ability. He's basically a third tackle. And Hernandez is such an athlete. They've both got ridiculous hands.
"I think you're going to see teams scout tight ends a little differently now. Tight ends maybe that you thought would be fourth- or fifth-round picks before—maybe now you look at their talent a little differently because of what good athletes they are."