FOXBOROUGH - Less than a month ago, when the Patriots played the Broncos in Denver, tight end Aaron Hernandez became the go-to receiver, grabbing a career-best nine passes for a team-high 129 yards and a touchdown in a 41-23 win.
Four weeks later, Hernandez has a simple explanation for his big day. It’s the same tune he sang immediately following the game.
“Plays called for me, and they were obviously focusing on Gronk and Wes,’’ Hernandez said, referring to fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Wes Welker, who combined for 212 receptions, 2,896 yards, and 26 receiving touchdowns this season. “Left me with some opportunities to make plays.’’
With their combination of size and speed, Hernandez and Gronkowski have become matchup nightmares for opponents, and Welker has proven that he can get open against almost anybody and catch almost anything thrown his way. Considering that two-time league MVP Tom Brady is the one throwing them the ball, defenses are left in a precarious position.
“They got to pick their poison,’’ Hernandez said. “Whoever they want to focus on, we got more options than they can focus on.’’
You don’t have to remind Broncos coach John Fox about that. He knows full well the challenge his defense will face.
“The fact that there are more than one or two names . . . makes it hard for any defensive coach to defend the New England offense,’’ said Fox, whose teams are 1-3 against the Patriots, including a 32-29 loss in Super Bowl XXXVIII when he was coaching the Carolina Panthers.
“You just try to mix it up and win some of those matchups. Tom’s as good as anybody at finding those matchups, and it will come down to that again this time, I’m sure.’’
Left tackle Matt Light has been part of three Super Bowl-winning teams since the Patriots plucked him from Purdue in the 2001 draft with a second-round pick. And while those memories will provide long-term satisfaction, it’s the short-term postseason snapshots that are currently eating at Light and the other Patriots. They have lost home playoff games each of the past two seasons, and three straight postseason games dating to Super Bowl XLII.
“Obviously we haven’t done well enough,’’ said Light. “It’s on all of our minds, guys that have been here and been a part of that. You work that much, you put that much time into a season, you have success to a degree during the regular season, then you go out and you can’t get it done in the postseason, that’s a difficult thing to swallow.
“That’s why you put a little bit more time into it, you put a little more effort in, and hopefully you get a better outcome. We’re working hard towards that.’’
Light was asked if he were surprised at the attention being paid to Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who has become such a media darling that he has overshadowed almost everyone else, including Brady, who had one of his best statistical seasons.
“No, I’m never surprised at what gets talked about anymore,’’ Light said. “Any time there’s anything new - and he’s obviously new, he’s done incredible things this season - I think the hype is justified.
“When you go out and can lead a team like that and make the kind of plays that they’re making, people are going to talk about you.
“But I think we’ve always had one good thing here, and that’s staying within our own locker room, staying within the framework of what we have to do to improve and not get caught up in that stuff. Hopefully it won’t be a factor.’’
It might come as a surprise because of the eventual 41-23 victory, but right guard Brian Waters said the Broncos initially took advantage against a Patriots team that wasn’t ready in the regular-season meeting. Denver scored on its first three drives and led, 16-7, early in the second quarter. “They did some things early on that we weren’t as prepared for as we thought we were,’’ said Waters. “It took us a minute to just understand exactly what they were trying to do. Then we caught up and went from there. That’s one of the great things about here, is our adjustments to the fact that you never really know what a team is going to do until you actually get out there. Once we got out there and got a feel for what their game plan was, I think we caught up to it and eventually ended up producing more.’’
Tebow has faced criticism this season - and in seasons past, dating to his time at Florida - for being vocal about his religious beliefs. Patriots special teams star Matthew Slater, while not as public about his faith as Tebow, said Tebow has made it easier for others with similar beliefs like himself to be outspoken, or at least less hesitant to mention it. “I think Tim has brought an awareness to our faith,’’ said Slater. “He’s taken some criticism for it, but I think people are thinking more about it now, it’s more of a topic of conversation than it ever has been. My hat’s off to him for what he’s doing. I think he’s doing the right thing, and I think he’s challenging other believers across the league to maybe be more open about their beliefs.’’
Defensive lineman Kyle Love was the only Patriot to miss yesterday’s practice, but his absence was not injury-related, according to the practice report. There were 15 Patriots listed under limited participation: defensive backs Kyle Arrington (foot), Patrick Chung (foot), James Ihedigbo (shoulder), and Devin McCourty (shoulder); offensive linemen Dan Connolly (groin), Light (ankle), Logan Mankins (knee), and Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot); receivers Julian Edelman (back), Slater (shoulder), and Welker (knee); and linebackers Dane Fletcher (thumb), Rob Ninkovich (hip), Brandon Spikes (knee), and Tracy White (abdomen). Vollmer hasn’t played since Nov. 27; Mankins sprained his left MCL early in the win against the Dolphins Dec. 24 . . . The Broncos are the only team that can claim two playoff victories over the Patriots, with both of those coming in Denver (1986, 2005). New England’s 13 other playoff losses have been to 13 different teams . . . ESPN’s Kenny Mayne and a camera crew were making the rounds in the locker room, so look for his unique take on some obscure subject in the days to come. Mayne was spotted hamming it up with Light, Chad Ochocinco, and Ross Ventrone.