Hernandez steps out in Denver

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Hernandez steps out in Denver

DENVER, CO -- You didn't forget about that other Patriots tight end, did you?

The Broncos might've.

Aaron Hernandez went off Sunday, leading all Patriots with 129 receiving yards and his first touchdown since November 6. The nine catches are a career best. He also had 16 rushing yards.

Where was Rob Gronkowski? Muzzled. Yes, just one week after setting the record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end in a single season, he was held to 53-yards on four catches. After the game Hernandez said his partner's silence enabled him to make some noise -- and that's just the way it works.

"That's one thing about us-- we're never really competing just with each other," Hernandez said. "We see each other as one and we both work together; when he has a great game I'm happy for him, when I have a great game I know he's happy for me. We work off each other.

"We work together and we love each other."

It was his best game in weeks, maybe of his career, and getting here has been a work in progress.

Hernandez's early momentum this season was derailed after he sprained his left knee's MCL in New England's Week 2 win over the Chargers. His return to the field was quick -- he missed just two games -- but the recovery was slow. He wore a bulky brace that bothered him. Every week, he was losing targets to the bigger, seemingly impossible to cover counterpart. Especially in the end zone.

But Gronkowski's touchdown total sits this week, still teeming, at 15. While he and slot receiver Wes Welker drew double teams from Denver's defense, Hernandez took advantage.

"I don't know why any team wouldn't be covering Gronkowski," he laughed. "He's 6-6, 260 . . . good speed. I don't know why they wouldn't. But that leaves me some opportunities to make plays for the team."

Where he really impressed? Yards after the catch. Hernandez stretched out three receptions for over 20 yards, once on third down and another on fourth-and-1. He got open on crossing routes, he peeled off of blocks, he found gaps, he stutter-stepped and he cut. His legs looked great, the knee -- no problem.

There should be reverberations from this night.

The Patriots won the game, won the division, and got a great answer at a crucial time for what can happen when an opponent solves the Gronkowski problem.

"I haven't tried the AFC East championship hat on yet, but I'm sure it'll fit pretty good," Hernandez grinned.

Pure joy -- for him, for New England. It hasn't rained in a while.

Running back D.J. Foster making a late push for Patriots roster spot

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Running back D.J. Foster making a late push for Patriots roster spot

CHARLOTTE – D.J. Foster began making his case to stick on the Patriots’ 53-man roster Friday night against the Panthers.

An undrafted pass-catching back from Arizona State who’d missed almost all of training camp with an unknown injury was pretty persuasive. He caught three passes for 33 yards, showing nice burst, carried twice for 9 and returned a punt for 16. He saw his action late in the third with fellow rookie Jacoby Brissett in at quarterback.

Foster punctuated his first reception – an 11-yard screen that Brissett (9-for-9 for 85 yards and a touchdown) – by lowering his shoulder and delivering a blow that Foster said he wanted to “get that adrenaline going.”

“It felt great,” said Foster. “It had been a long time. I was telling some guys, that was the first time I’d gotten hit since college. It felt good to get back out there. The coaches gave me a chance to get out there and show what I could do.”

James White will be the Patriots sub-back (or third down back or pass-catching back or whatever you want to call him) until Dion Lewis returns from his knee malady. But Foster showed the acceleration and quickness that made him such a productive player for the Sun Devils. With 222 receptions for 2,458 yards and another 2,355 on the ground, Foster would fit nicely in an offense like the Patriots that uses the short and intermediate passing game so well.  

He hasn’t had much chance to make a case to stick and the Patriots – with White, LeGarrette Blount, Tyler Gaffney, Brandon Bolden and Joey Iosefa all in the mix – may have to take their chances with releasing Foster and hoping he goes unclaimed so New England can bring him back for their practice squad. It’s a risk, but other teams are encountering the same issues at cutdown time. Do they pluck a player they passed on in the draft and put him on their roster ahead of players they’ve been working with since the spring?

Bill Belichick wasn’t effusive in his praise for Foster but did indicate it was a good opportunity to at least see him in game action.

“We played a couple of guys that haven’t gotten much playing time so we got a chance to look at them,” he explained. “D.J. is one of those so we wanted to give him a few opportunities to handle the ball because he hasn’t done it this year. I thought he did some good things. There are a couple of things that he could do a little better but we’ll look at the film and see how it goes. He did a couple of things with his chances out there.”

To make the most of those chances, Foster said he avoided getting too hyped before getting on the field.  
 
“Just keeping my calm and hearing the playcall and just doing the mechanics and all the fundamentals of being in the backfield (was the focus),” said Foster. "Coach Ivan (Fears, running backs coach) did a great job of keeping me mellow. I felt healthy, I felt really good. I got some punt returns, some kick returns, some special teams. I was seeking contact to get that adrenaline going.

“It’s a long process,” he acknowledged. “Talking to the veteran guys, they said it’s a long process. I knew battling my injury and come back healthy, I came back strong and I felt ready.”

We’ll see if it’s enough to carve out a niche on the roster. The cutdown to 75 players comes Tuesday.