FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Aaron Hernandez made a beeline postgame across the New England Patriots' locker room toward where not just Tom Brady was straightening his shirt, but where a bottle of cologne sat on a shelf.
Hernandez snagged it, sprayed it on his hands and then rubbed it on his head. Brady noticed Hernandez's primping and decided to take a fragrant shot himself.
And with that, the Pats' quarterback and once-again chief threat at tight end were in concert, at least aromatically. They better move symbiotically for the rest of these playoffs because now comes the test for Bill Belichick's machine, one that worships by the simple "next man, up" ethos – be it from competition, roster move or, in this case, ill-timed injury.
New England produced one painful victory Sunday, a 41-28 cruise over the Houston Texans to set up a home AFC championship game rematch next Sunday.
The major blow came with a season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski when the star tight end fell in the first quarter on the left forearm that he broke during the regular season. He left the field in obvious pain and never returned. The original injury cost him five games, his return coming in Week 17. This one will sit him until next year.
A heavy brace and thick wrap did little to protect him Sunday on a relatively routine fall. Was the guy really ever healed up? Linebacker Jerod Mayo said Gronkowski practiced like normal all week.
"He wouldn't have played if he wasn't [ready]," Belichick said. "The doctors handle the medical decision."
Belichick wasn't going to spend a lot of time discussing any of it. Not Gronk and not an undisclosed ankle injury to rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, who never returned to the game and left Gillette Stadium with a heavy limp. Or what appeared to be a thumb injury to running back Danny Woodhead, who was done after just one carry.
"These kinds of games," Belichick said philosophically, "you never really know when the dial spins, where it's going to wind up, who it's going to end up on."
The team released little information on the Jones/Woodhead injuries although other Patriots players believed both would be ready for the Ravens next week.
Gronk, however, is gone, a huge loss since the 6-foot-6, 240 pound tight end is among the most difficult matchups in the NFL. He fought through a seriously sprained ankle during last year's playoffs, an injury that limited his mobility in a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. Now comes this.
"We have that next man-up mentality," said linebacker Jerod Mayo. "Whoever we call on to make big plays, hopefully they do it."
That was, essentially, the mood of everyone around the Patriots, which should surprise no one. Wasting time fretting over who can't play is how you get bounced out of the playoffs, a lesson pounded home to this franchise in 2009, when a Week 17 injury to Wes Welker left the team reeling. Baltimore showed up in the wild-card round and blasted the Pats 33-14.
New England isn't going to let that happen again.
So despite losing two stars in one early drive, the Patriots scored 41 points and gained 457 yards in a playoff game against a J.J. Watt-led defense. The strategy was shot, but the game went on.
"We had a whole plan built for [Gronkowski] and Woody," Brady said. "We run the first series of the game and all those plans change. I think a little of it was 'What are we going to do now? How are we going to adjust?' But we seemed to settle in there midway through the first quarter and put together a pretty good game.
"That's what [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] does best. He gets guys in the best position to make plays and always comes up with a way to adapt and scheme things up. There's no one better in the league."
Brady merely went for 344 yards and three touchdowns, including two to running back Shane Vereen, who was essentially subbing for Woodhead. Vereen also had a rushing touchdown. Wes Welker caught 13 passes for 131 yards.
And Hernandez grabbed six for 85.
"It's hard to replace a player like [Gronk] because he's a freak of nature," said Hernandez, who at 6-1, 245 isn't far behind him. "[He] definitely helps me out because so much attention is on him. Everyone has to step up. It's a big loss and you can't replace a player like him."
So they won't try, per se. They'll just go with what they've got and not worry about what ifs.
It's how it is with every winning team, although New England may do it better than anyone else. This is their seventh AFC title game in a dozen years, with the Belichick-Brady combo seeking a sixth Super Bowl appearance and a fourth Lombardi trophy. Brady meanwhile won his 17th postseason game [against just six defeats], passing Joe Montana for the most ever for a starting quarterback in NFL history.
Guys come. Guys go. The Pats win.
"My rookie year Tom [Brady] got hurt and we won 11 games," Mayo said. "That's the way it is around here."
If anything, this puts Belichick's creation at full-test. He'd rather take on the surging Ravens with all his weapons at full-health but that's football. He's not afraid to release popular veteran stars, play backups that show they're ready or even cut a guy the night before the Super Bowl. Welker is still wondering if he'll get a rich contract next season. That's the deal.
"I'm really proud of my players," Belichick said.
It's rarely easy for the Patriots; they just make it look that way.
Fifty-three guys will convene in Foxborough this week to prepare for the Ravens, prepare for a shot at a Super Bowl. Bill Belichick will coach them.
If they win, maybe they'll all share the same cologne.
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