FOXBOROUGH - Aaron Hernandez started high-stepping about 10 yards out. He made sure Bills safety George Wilson could tell he was staring him down on the way to the end zone.
Hernandez’s 39-yard second-quarter touchdown yesterday made it 21-14; the Patriots still were pulling themselves out of the 21-point first-quarter hole they fell into in their regular-season finale.
When Hernandez crossed the goal line, Wilson had a few words for him. Hernandez wasn’t about to back down. They came facemask to facemask, trading trash talk.
“Obviously, the game’s filled with a lot of emotion,’’ Hernandez said. “And I’m one who plays the game with a lot of emotion. I talk a lot of trash and they talk it back.’’
There was still a lot of football left. The Patriots ended up scoring 49 straight points in a 49-21 win that clinched the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
Hernandez never had any doubts that the offense would click.
“Our offense, as soon as we get it going, we’re tough to stop,’’ he said. “I feel like we’re one of the toughest teams to stop in this league. We’ve just got to get off to a tougher start, and if we do that then we’ll be a lot more dangerous.’’
Hernandez caught seven passes for 138 yards and the touchdown, his seventh of the season, one more than he had as a rookie last season. It was his third 100-yard receiving game of the season, and Hernandez shocked some life into a Patriots offense that couldn’t have started slower.
“Aaron has been huge here,’’ said quarterback Tom Brady, who targeted the tight end 11 times.
Hernandez has made a habit this season of turning short catches into long runs. He entered the game with 393 yards after the catch (fifth in the league among tight ends). And along with his scoring play, he racked up more YAC on a 44-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter that set up the BenJarvus Green-Ellis 3-yard touchdown that put the Patriots ahead, 35-21.
After catching the ball at the 37, Hernandez sliced through the Bills’ defense to get inside the 5.
“It just shows what he can do, his versatility,’’ said tight end Rob Gronkowski. “He’s unbelievable when he has the ball in his hands, he can make defenders miss at all times no matter what part of the field he’s on. You saw a couple of other times when he made the guys miss when he caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage. He’s an unbelievable player. I love playing next to him. It helps so much.’’
Trying to explain his knack for tacking yards onto a play, Hernandez said, “I just try to make moves, try to make people miss, and sometimes it works. Growing up, I was more of a running back through my life until high school, so I just always loved carrying the ball and making moves, and I still try to do that.’’
Hernandez put together a strong sophomore season despite missing three games after spraining the MCL in his left knee in Week 2 against the Chargers. He entered the game third on the team in catches (72) and yards (772) behind Wes Welker and Gronkowski.
“It feels great,’’ Hernandez said. “I love being healthy. I’m feeling better and better as we’re getting closer to the playoffs and that’s really what matters.’’
The Patriots fell behind against the Broncos two weeks ago and Miami last week and had to play catch-up again yesterday. There is concern that they need to eliminate their slow starts as they head into the playoffs.
Hernandez, however, said he wasn’t worried.
“We don’t care if we’re down 30 points, we feel like we can come back,’’ he said. “You’ve seen the past four, five weeks, we’ve been down and then came back. We know we’re going to put up about 30 points as soon as our offense starts clicking, whether we start in the third quarter, fourth quarter. We know how to put points on the board.
“We’ve just got to start a little earlier and we’ll be all right.’’Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.