FOXBOROUGH - He saw the AFC conference trophy in the dressing room and the championship hat and shirt in his cubicle. And yet, Aaron Hernandez couldn’t quite believe he was going to the only game that comes with a ring.
“I feel great,’’ the Patriots’ factotum tight end-running back-blocker declared yesterday after his teammates had escaped the Ravens by a 23-20 margin in the final seconds to make it back to the Super Bowl after a three-year absence. “It’s a dream come true. It hasn’t hit me yet, but in the next few days it’ll be real.’’
Hernandez had a significant part in making that happen, catching a team-high seven passes for 66 yards, running three times for 9 more, and holding off whatever Baltimore bodies he was assigned to divert.
“He’s always been great and he was great today,’’ said Rob Gronkowski, his burly bookend. “It just shows he’s a huge part of our offense.’’
Four times Hernandez produced first downs, two of them during the field-goal drive that put New England ahead, 13-10, three minutes before halftime. And on the opening series of the second half, quarterback Tom Brady called his number six times in 13 plays, three on carries, en route to another field goal. “He played a great game,’’ said receiver Deion Branch. “We expect those things out of those guys, Aaron and Gronkowski.’’
Given his versatile body of work this season, Hernandez figured he’d be called upon for a diverse number of tasks (“Definitely.’’), especially against a Baltimore defense that likes the medieval approach. “The Ravens have a great defense,’’ he said. “They have Hall of Fame players on their team, but we knew we had a very good offense that is hard to stop.’’
Hernandez is its Swiss Army knife, a 245-pound utensil that not only can do whatever the game plan calls for, but is happy to oblige. “He’s a supreme athlete,’’ said guard Brian Waters. “The ways he has been used and the way he’s accepted the ways he has been used in that position - running one week, blocking the next week, catching passes. Other guys would be a bit sensitive having another guy at his position catching a lot of passes. Not Aaron. Whatever we ask him to do, he does it.’’
Rival defenders had him on their radar screen all season. Gronkowski had the numbers, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey observed, but Hernandez didn’t get the credit he deserved. When Gronkowski limped off just before the third quarter ended, Hernandez loomed even larger. “That’s like my brother,’’ he said. “It was weird not being in the huddle with him because he’s always there.’’
So is Hernandez. You just never knew where he’d be coming out of it. When the game was on the line in the final two minutes and Brady needed to convert on third and 4 on his 39 to run out the clock, he went to Hernandez. When the ball fell incomplete and the Ravens took over, Hernandez began hyperventilating. “My heart was pounding fast,’’ he said. “I knew I had a chance to make the play so we didn’t have to give the ball back.’’
He watched the final 104 seconds in high anxiety as the game was lost, tied, and then won all in the span of a dozen seconds when receiver Lee Evans had a touchdown pass knocked out of his grasp and kicker Billy Cundiff missed from a schoolboy distance. “We were waiting for the miss,’’ Hernandez said, “and the miss came.’’
He’d been imagining playing in the Super Bowl since he was a kid, Hernandez mused, yet it still was hard to imagine he’ll get the chance. But the trophy was in the room and the team’s Most Versatile Player had himself some celebratory clothing and a ticket to Indianapolis. “It doesn’t seem real,’’ Hernandez said. “It’s crazy. But I can’t wait for it to come.’’