Article By: Peter Kay
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Barring an unforeseen calamity, Tom Brady will have his two young, productive tight ends available Sunday when the New England Patriots host the Houston Texans in an A.F.C. playoff game.
Last season, the tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were a record-setting combination. This season, having them on the field at the same time almost qualifies as a news bulletin. If they do indeed play Sunday, it will be only the sixth time in 17 games this season that it will happen.
Gronkowski and Hernandez, who were both drafted in 2010, combined for 169 receptions and 24 touchdowns in 2011, with Gronkowski (17 touchdown receptions) setting a record for tight ends. Gronkowski became a sensation with his standout play and his emphatic spiking of the ball, not to mention his infectious joie de vivre, exemplified by his “Yo soy fiesta!” — I am party! — comment in the playoffs.
The Patriots were credited with revolutionizing the tight end position, and recognizing what they had, signed both to lucrative, long-term extensions in the off-season. Their individual success did not carry over into 2012, however, primarily because of injuries. Hernandez badly sprained his right ankle in the home opener and ended up missing six games, after missing four in his first two seasons. Gronkowski broke his left forearm in the team’s 10th game and missed five games. He played in all 16 games last season but injured his left ankle in the A.F.C. championship game and limped through the Super Bowl. He then had an operation in the off-season.
Their statistics dropped accordingly, although Gronkowski managed to secure a Pro Bowl berth. His 38 career touchdown receptions — 11 this season — are the third most for a player through his first three seasons, behind Randy Moss (43) and Jerry Rice (40).
If Brady or the New England offense missed the tight ends, it was hard to tell. The Patriots won 12 games. They led the league in scoring, averaging 34.8 points a game, 2.7 more than last season. They led the N.F.L. in total offense, averaging 427.9 yards a game, and were No. 1 in the A.F.C. in passing offense and No. 3 in rushing offense. Their 67 touchdowns were the fourth highest in N.F.L. history and six more than in 2011.
Brady and Wes Welker again proved to be a formidable combination, with Welker collecting 118 receptions. The newcomer Brandon Lloyd, who, like Welker, appeared in all 16 games, caught 74 passes. And running back Stevan Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards, the fourth highest in team history.
“It’s about execution,” Brady said. “Whether it’s Rob and Aaron or whoever’s out there, needs to be able to make the plays that are called. We have a lot of good football players on this team and everyone has an opportunity to contribute at some point and if your number is called, you go out and execute well.”
New England attempted to be a more balanced team on offense this season, as evidenced by its rushing totals. It ranked seventh over all in rushing yards (it was 20th last season). There were 85 more rushing plays this season than last. With Gronkowski and Hernandez out, Lloyd became a focal point. Brady threw to him 130 times; only Welker saw more passes thrown his way.
Gronkowski missed the Dec. 10 game against Houston because of the broken arm, which did not go unnoticed this week. “It just gives them another weapon in how they go about their business,” Texans Coach Gary Kubiak said of Gronkowski. “He’s very impressive as a player.”
Hernandez, however, had eight receptions and two touchdowns against the Texans, a game won easily by New England, 42-14.
Brady noted in his weekly radio appearance after the regular-season finale that having Gronkowski and Hernandez forced defenses to make a difficult choice. You focus on one, or both, and someone else is going to be open, he said.
Gronkowski returned Dec. 30 in typical style, grabbing a 23-yard touchdown pass, his first since being hurt Nov. 18 against the Colts. He was exuberant after the game, telling reporters, “It’s a lot of fun to be back.”
The Patriots echo that sentiment. But the team went 4-1 in Gronkowski’s absence and was 5-1 without Hernandez. It has shown it can win with them or without them — which can be a terrifying prospect for an opponent.