Rob Gronkowski had caught seven touchdown passes over the previous four games, a span in which he averaged six catches and 98 receiving yards.
Those are lofty numbers to duplicate from the tight end position, even with two players. But the Patriots were forced to face the Jets on Thanksgiving night without Gronkowski, who broke his left forearm in last Sunday’s home win over the Colts.
Gronkowski’s absence coincided with the return of Aaron Hernandez, who had missed three straight games with a lingering ankle injury. Seeing action in just his fifth game of the season, Hernandez was targeted three times against the Jets, catching two passes for 36 yards in the Patriots’ 49-19 win.
“It was certainly good to have Aaron back, and I was pleased with the amount of snaps he was able to play,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on Friday, during the team’s weekly conference call. “It’s great to have a guy like that back. It’s a guy who can do a lot of things with the ball.”
Hernandez was in on 56 of the team’s 69 offensive plays, or 81 percent.
“I think it’s tough for a player who has been out for a few weeks to come right back in at the same level that he would be if he were playing all those consecutive weeks and practicing,” coach Bill Belichick said. “But I think Aaron did some good things and we hope that in the next game that he plays, that he’ll be able to build on [Thursday] night.”
Daniel Fells saw his most significant playing time of the season. He was on the field for 57 plays, and caught just his third pass of the season, a 24-yard seam route.
“Daniel definitely did a nice job of his role in the game plan,” McDaniels said. “We asked a lot of different things of Daniel [Thursday] night. Asked him to do some different things in the running game. Asked him to pass protect at times. The way we played [the tight ends], we had two of them on the field, predominantly, most of the game. Those guys . . . allowed us to play the game we wanted to play.”
With Gronkowski expected to miss at least the next three games — including visits by San Francisco and Houston — having Hernandez back and both he and Fells contributing could help soften the blow.
Vince Wilfork is near the team lead in the percentage of defensive snaps played, but is only tied for ninth among Patriots in tackles, averaging slightly more than three per game. He makes a big impact in other ways, with plays that might not find their way onto the stat sheet.
Case in point: Mark Sanchez’s second-quarter fumble, which was scooped up by Steve Gregory and returned for a 32-yard touchdown. Sanchez was forced to tuck the ball and run on a busted play, but collided with the backside of Jets guard Brandon Moore, losing the ball.
Where was Wilfork on that play? Pushing Moore toward an oncoming Sanchez.
“Vince is doing a great job of just forcing the guard back, and I think it actually surprised Sanchez how quickly he got popped back,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “Little things like that might not show up in the stats, but are critically important to our defense.”
No word on Edelman
There was no update on Julian Edelman, who left Thursday’s game with what the Patriots termed a head injury.
He was not spotted in the locker room after the game. Edelman was belted on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Jets safety LaRon Landry in the third quarter on an end reverse.
Edelman scored two touchdowns, one on a fumble recovery on a kickoff and the other a 56-yard reception in which he burned Landry.
The league announced Friday that cornerback Kyle Arrington was fined $21,000 for bringing down Colts quarterback Andrew Luck with a helmet-to-helmet hit Nov. 18 . . . Receiver Greg Salas, whom the Patriots acquired in a September trade and released on Thursday, was claimed on Friday by the Eagles. The Jets also put a claim in on Salas, according to a league source. Salas appeared in just one game for the Patriots, last Sunday against the Colts, and did not have a reception . . . More streaking for Tom Brady: He’s now tossed a touchdown pass in 43 consecutive games, and has not thrown an interception in his last 189 attempts. Brady’s 323 passing yards against the Jets gave him 52 games of at least 300, tied with Kurt Warner for the fifth in league history. Peyton Manning is the leader with 69 . . . Belichick earned his 200th career victory on Thursday (he’s 200-107-0), and will tie Dan Reeves for seventh on the career list with his next victory. After the game, Brady was asked about the milestone: “He expects us to play at a high level every week. He has high expectations in practice every day. That’s what you look for in a coach, someone that gets the best out of all the players that he coaches. He certainly does that.” . . . By reaching eight wins, the Patriots have guaranteed their 12th straight non-losing season. They’re the only team in the NFL without at least one losing season since 2001.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.