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As Pats shift to run, TEs block more, catch less

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 16, 2014 at 2:18 am •  Published: January 16, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were widely regarded as the top tight end duo in the NFL.

Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan are blocking in anonymity as their successors, helping pave the way for New England's return to the AFC championship game.

"The game, with the way it is now, no one ever talks about a blocking tight end," Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said Wednesday. "It is how many catches they have. The tight ends on our team have been vital to our running success."

The Patriots' ground attack is rolling — 267 and 234 yards in the last two games — as they head into Sunday's game at Denver that will determine whether they or the Broncos reach the Super Bowl.

New England won the first meeting between the teams this season, 34-31 in overtime in Foxborough on Nov. 24. Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass that day then went out with a season-ending knee injury two weeks later. He already had missed the first six games while recovering from forearm and back surgeries and ended up playing just seven games.

Hernandez was arrested in late June, charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

He and Gronkowski combined for 106 catches and 16 touchdowns last season. In their three seasons together, they totaled 362 receptions for 56 touchdowns.

The totals for the tight ends the Patriots will use against the Broncos?

Just 37 receptions and four touchdowns in four seasons for Hoomanawanui and 16 receptions and two touchdowns in five seasons for Mulligan.

"They've lost key players and you've got to find your strength as a team once you do that," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "They lost Gronkowski. He was a big part of their offense. So they've got to find other ways to beat teams."

The Patriots' offensive system is broad enough to accommodate stylistic changes at different positions so they can adjust when personnel change, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.

"Mike and Matt have been a very big part of what we're doing," he said. "I know that they may not have the production in terms of catches in the passing game, but that certainly doesn't diminish their role that they play for us in the pass game. They definitely do a nice job in protection."

They're also a major part of the running game.

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