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."
Says Welker, "These guys are both one-of-a-kind players at their position, and we've got them. How do you defend them?"
You can see the Patriots aren't afraid of deploying Hernandez anywhere—and thus the matchup issue. When he's split wide, do you put a corner on him? When he's a tight end or flanker, do you use a safety, or maybe a quicker linebacker? Most often Denver had a safety on Hernandez, but Hernandez was fast enough to shuck him off. And even when Brady didn't throw to him, it was only because he had Gronkowski open as well. On a couple of occasions Hernandez appeared to be wide-open and running free—but because of the trust Brady has in Gronkowski (whose 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdown catches in 2011 were both NFL records for a tight end), he went to the big man.
Now the Patriots enter the most important game of their season with not just one X factor but two. "I'm a lucky man," Hernandez said in a cleared-out locker room on Saturday night. "It's a dream come true to play for the Patriots. And to do all this stuff? When they drafted me I was just hoping they'd use me. Now they're using me wherever, whatever. It's great."
The Patriots have their best chance since the 2007 season to win the fourth Super Bowl of the Belichick era. They failed then. They're better now, and the quirky tight end attack is the biggest reason why.
TIM LAYDEN'S AFC FORECAST
RAVENS at PATRIOTS
SUNDAY, 3 P.M. ET
You will hear plenty about the Ravens' 33--14 playoff beat-down of New England two years ago. Ignore it all. The Patriots who lost that game were without slot receiver Wes Welker, who'd blown out his left knee in the season finale. They hadn't yet drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the revolutionary tight end combo that has been terrorizing defenses. And Tom Brady had been a half step off his rhythm during the 2009 season after his own knee injury the previous year. In a sense the Pats have been rebuilding since.
You should also avoid reading too much into the Pats' dismantling of the overhyped Broncos in the divisional round; Baltimore's defense will not allow Brady to play flag football. But while it's safe to say Ray Rice will do better than the 2.9 yards per carry he gained in Sunday's win over the Texans—their run stoppers are much better than New England's—neither Rice's rushing nor the Ravens' D will relieve QB Joe Flacco of the pressure to make as many big plays as Brady does. And that won't happen.
Patriots 27, Ravens 17
Photographs by DAVID BERGMAN
STRETCHING BELIEF Gronkowski has inspired adulation for plays such as his diving touchdown against Denver; his three receiving scores tied an NFL playoff record.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (HERNANDEZ)
CATCH AND CARRY The athletic Hernandez not only had four receptions against Denver but also led the Pats in rushing with 61 yards.
Photograph by DAVID BERGMAN
'07 ON '11 Brady is as sharp as ever, and the Pats' offense looks even more on top of its game than in the season that fell just short of perfection.