FOXBOROUGH - Tom Brady called his tight ends “great assets to this offense,’’ but to the Denver Broncos, the versatile tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez posed a much more puzzling problem.
They were like a Rubik’s Cube; a brain teaser with no clear-cut solution.
Last night, the Broncos were completely baffled by New England’s tight ends, just as they were Dec. 18 in Denver.
They simply had no answer for Gronkowski and Hernandez, who proved a tough matchup problem in leading the Patriots in receiving and rushing, respectively, in a 45-10 romp at Gillette Stadium.
Gronkowski led all receivers with 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns while Hernandez, in a tweak to his customary role, had five carries for 61 yards, including a 43-yarder on the game’s opening series that set up Wes Welker’s 7-yard touchdown reception.
“That run by Aaron really got us off to a great start,’’ Brady said.
Talk about your tight ends playing complementary football.
Brady seemed to play pitch-and-catch with Gronkowski all night long. He targeted Gronkowski 12 times and connected on scores of 10, 12, and 19 yards.
“He was on fire, man, that’s just how he is,’’ Gronkowski said of Brady. “Tom was throwing the ball in the playoffs just like it was any other game.’’
The first of Gronkowski’s three touchdown grabs, all of which came in the first half and tied the NFL single-game postseason record, was an athletic feat that Brady called, “one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.’’
Facing second and 3 at the Denver 10, Gronkowski laid out his 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound frame to snag Brady’s pass with his big paws, reeled it in, and clutched it tight to his body as he crash-landed in the end zone. An official review of the play confirmed the catch and the Patriots were up, 14-0.
“That boy’s a monster,’’ said Hernandez. “He makes plays, and big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. That showed it by him.’’
Hernandez also rose to the occasion, embracing his role as a running back, if only for a night. This came after Hernandez had a career day in the 41-23 victory over the Broncos in Denver, in which he had nine receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown.
“ Yeah, I’d say I was surprised,’’ Hernandez said, when asked about running the ball as much as he did. “But I was happy to be doing it and I’m hoping to do a little bit more of it.’’
Although he also made four receptions for 55 yards and a 17-yard TD in the third quarter that made it 42-7, Hernandez’s appetite to carry the ball was not diminished in the least when he got dinged on his last carry, a 2-yard run to the Denver 2.
“I feel great,’’ Hernandez said. “I love running back.’’
But, last night, the Patriots had to love the versatility their tight ends gave them in their first playoff victory since 2007.
“When you’re making plays like that,’’ Brady said of his tight ends, “ it’s really not about the defense, it’s about making spectacular plays.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.