Hernandez steps out in Denver

Hernandez steps out in Denver
December 19, 2011, 2:56 am
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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.