FOXBORO -- As the Patriots are wont to do after any injury, they downplayed what happened to Aaron Hernandez Sunday. He is but one player in the larger machine that is the New England offense, and there will be no excuses made as to why things didn't go according to plan against the Cardinals.
That next-man-up philosophy is essential to the Patriot Way, but the results on the field after Hernandez hobbled off told a different story: His loss was a game-changer.
In the first quarter Hernandez's right leg got caught awkwardly underneath a mass of bodies as he blocked following a completion to Julian Edelman. The tight end had to be helped off the field and did not return, having suffered what the team announced as an ankle injury.
According to in-game reports, his ankle is not broken. Pro Football Talk reported Sunday night that Hernandez could miss up to six weeks with the injury.
Without Hernandez on the field, the Patriots offense looked out of sync for much of the afternoon.
Instead of the two- and sometimes three-tight end sets the Patriots have run in order to feature Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels opted for more three wide receivers sets as the game wore on.
The Patriots have a glut of receiving weapons even without Hernandez -- Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman -- but the offense appeared far different from the one that ran up 35 points last week in Tennessee.
With just one touchdown-scoring drive late in the game, it was a performance that left the Patriots offense wanting more.
Quarterback Tom Brady wouldn't admit that Hernandez's absence had much to do with it.
"We have an offense with Hernandez in the game and without him in the game," Brady said. "Guys go in and out and you lose guys over the course of a game and you have to be able to adjust. Im sure hes not going to be the only one we lose this year at some point, but we have to figure out a way to still move the ball effectively throughout the course of the game enough where we can score more than 18 points."
Coach Bill Belichick also emphasized the fact that New England needs to be able to change on the fly, no matter who leaves injured.
"Well you can't go into the game just counting on one guy, any guy," Belichick said. "Everybody has to be ready to adjust. It's not the first time a player has been injured in the game."
The Patriots, who have stockpiled several players at the tight end position, had three dressed for Sunday's game. In the first half, following Hernandez's injury, Michael Hoomanawanui played at tight end and very sparingly appeared in the backfield -- much in the way Hernandez might.
Though he's been in New England for just over a week, Hoomanawanui said he was ready to step in when Hernandez went down.
"I'm confident in myself and my abilities," Hoomanawanui said. "The game plan we put in, if someone were to go down, that's the way it played out. That's why we went with it.
"Hopefully Aaron's alright. We gotta move on. One guy goes down, someone's gotta step up."
Replacing Hernandez's production will be a difficult task. But even more than his numbers, it's the mismatches he provides and the formations he allows the Patriots to run that make him so dangerous.
The offense looked different without Hernandez on Sunday, and it will have to continue to adjust if he's forced to miss significant time. More so than either Brady or Belichick, Welker admitted as much after the game on Sunday.
"He's a great player," Welker said of Hernandez. "He makes so many plays for us and he's really come into this training camp and really done really well. He's a really tough guy to match up against and I think everybody across the board has got to pick up the slack and make some plays out there in his place."