The first chapter in life without tight end Rob Gronkowski was written for the Patriots on Thursday night, and it was Aaron Hernandez and Daniel Fells who carried the heavy load at the position in his absence.
Hernandez, of course, was returning from an injury of his own, and finished with two catches for 36 yards, while Fells chipped in another catch for 24 yards.
In total, the two provided solid production in both the passing and running game, and head coach Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels were pleased with the progress of each when discussing them on a Friday afternoon conference call.
Both echoed that Hernandez impressed in his return, and that he should continue to improve as he gets back into a groove after missing three more games due to a right ankle injury.
"He certainly had a nice play there early in the game to change the field position for us on the play action pass," Belichick said of Hernandez. "I think it's tough when a player's 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. I think Aaron did some good things, and I would hope that in the next game he plays that he would be able to build on last night and take it to higher ground.
"I know he'll work on the practice field and work hard on his preparation and some of the little things and things that make the difference between a good play and a great play," he added. "He'll work hard to make those things happen. Hopefully he'll improve every week."
Hernandez's conditioning impressed McDaniels.
"It was certainly good to have Aaron back, and I was pleased with the amount that he was able to play," he said. "I thought his conditioning was, for being off for such an extended period, I thought he hung in there and did a nice job in terms of trying to fight through and give us everything when he got into the game, which was good.
"It's great to have a guy like that back," he continued. "He's certainly a guy that can do a lot of things with the ball, and made some key plays for us last night again. Hopefully we can just build on that as we go down the stretch here with Aaron as he plays more and more each week. That was good."
Just five days prior to Thursday's contest, Fells was a healthy scratch for the Patriots' Week 11 win over the Colts, and it had appeared that Visanthe Shiancoe had leapfrogged him on the depth chart. On Thursday, however, it was Fells who logged the majority of snaps in Gronkowski's spot, playing 55 snaps to Shiancoe's nine.
"Daniel Fells really did a nice job of carrying out his role in the game plan," McDaniels said of the veteran tight end. "We asked a lot of different things of Daniel last night, asked him to do some different things in the running game, asked him to pass protect at times, and he made a good catch there for a good chunk there in the third quarter I believe."
Added Belichick, "Daniel did a good job for us. I thought that he showed up on a number of plays in the running game and in the passing game. I thought he did a good job."
Overall, McDaniels was pleased with the efforts of his tight ends in a game in which the Patriots heavily relied upon two tight end sets.
"We've got a lot of tight ends certainly that are capable of doing different things," he noted. "The way we felt best about playing them last night, we had two of them on the field predominantly most of the game. And I thought those guys gave us some production and really allowed us to play the game we wanted to play."