FOXBOROUGH - The best orders Aaron Hernandez could have gotten was to forget.
Forget that the Patriots were driving with a chance to break out of a tie with the Cowboys late in the third quarter.
Forget how close - 21 yards - they were to the end zone.
Forget how open he was on a quick hook route.
Forget his fumble that killed the drive.
Tom Brady told Hernandez to put the play behind him. Coaches said the same. But the Cowboys kicked a field goal that put them up, 16-13, with just 5:16 remaining, leaving the Patriots in need of some late-game heroics.
In order to reel in the 8-yard touchdown catch that capped the 10-play, 80-yard drive that gave New England a 20-16 win, Hernandez had to wipe the fumble from his memory.
“As a young player you tend to think about it and be down about it,’’ Hernandez said. “But you have people like Tom and the coaches saying forget about it, keep going. So I forgot about it and kept going.’’
Time and again, Brady went to Hernandez, whose 14 targets were a team high. On the last look, Brady found Hernandez in the end zone on an in-route a step ahead of Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins, putting the Patriots up with 22 seconds left.
“We just came out to play at the end and we followed Tom’s lead,’’ Hernandez said. “Tom was out there, we know he’s going to put us in the right play at the right time and all we had to do was the easy part - run the route and he’ll put it there.’’
It was the second time in Hernandez’s short career that he helped Brady polish off a fourth-quarter comeback, going back to last season, when his 10-yard touchdown catch with 7:14 left gave the Patriots a 31-27 victory over the Packers.
With three touchdowns this season, he’s halfway to the total he put up as a rookie.
“That’s what you look for, those types of situations and trying to make big-time plays,’’ said Hernandez. “You want to be a big-time player, you have to come up in those situations.’’
He caught a career-high eight balls for 68 yards. For the season, he’s hauled in 27 catches for 289 yards, while dealing with an MCL sprain that forced him to sit out two games. He’s become one of Brady’s favorite targets along with Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven passes for 74 yards yesterday.
“He’s done a lot of good things,’’ Brady said. “He’s really become a dependable player. [He] runs very good routes. Coach [Bill Belichick] always says a receiver should get open, catch the ball, and then do something with it after they catch it. Aaron has really done all three things. He’s really made a big jump from his first year to his second year and that’s why he’s out there at the end of the game.’’
At the time, the fumble seemed costly.
There was barely enough time to blink between the moment Bradie James ripped the ball loose and when Hernandez’s knee touched the ground.
The slip-up might have stuck with Hernandez, who was still kicking himself in practice over the touchdown pass he dropped last week against the Jets.
“You’ve got to forget about that stuff, which he did,’’ said Gronkowski. “He forgot about the fumble, went out, and got the game-winning touchdown.
“That’s definitely mental toughness there. He did a great job and he just kept on fighting. He definitely never let down. He’s a tough guy and no matter what happens, you move on and he helped out the team.’’
Between Brady’s two interceptions, Matthew Slater’s fumble in the first quarter, and the ball Hernandez coughed up, the victory was the kind they’d likely prefer to cover with a paper bag.
“Mistakes are going to happen in football, and obviously we had a few too many turnovers but we kept fighting and it shows our team,’’ Hernandez said. “You can’t leave any time on the clock when you keep fighting to win.
“Everyone’s going to have drops, you’ve just got to keep your head up. I kept my head up this week and made a play for Tom.’’Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.