Hernandez thrives in running back role

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On the first series Saturday night, tight end Aaron Hernandez was lined up in the backfield as the sole running back, a new wrinkle for the Patriots’ offense.

The versatile Hernandez took a handoff from quarterback Tom Brady on New England’s fourth play from scrimmage and burst around left end for a bruising 43-yard scamper to the Broncos’ 7-yard line.

That run set up the Patriots’ first score, a touchdown pass from Brady to Wes Welker on the very next play, and the rout was on, winding up as a 45-10 demolition of Denver in the playoff game Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.

While the experiment to use Hernandez had its benefits Saturday night, it also proved to be potentially injurious to Hernandez’ health.

On a first-and-goal play from the 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Hernandez was handed the ball for his fifth carry of the game.

He gained two yards and lost the ball when the Broncos lowered the boom on him. The Patriots recovered the football and Hernandez had to leave the game after that play, with 14 minutes to go. He was listed as having a head injury and did not return, planting the seed that he may not be available for next week’s AFC title game.

But after the game, Hernandez was at his locker and didn’t seem troubled by the hit or his status for next week.

“I’m ready, baby. I feel great,” said Hernandez, who gained a team-leading 61 yards on the ground.

Hernandez, who caught 79 passes for 910 yards, reeling in seven touchdown tosses during the regular season, was pleasantly surprised to be used as a running back, a position he clearly enjoys.

“I’d say I was surprised, but I was happy to be doing it, and I hope I can do a little more of it. I just do what the coaches ask me, and they put me in position to try to make plays, and I just try to help the team and just try to get the big gain,” said Hernandez, who also caught four passes for 55 yards Saturday night, including a 17-yard scoring strike from Brady in the third quarter.

“I love running back. I hope he [coach Bill Belichick] keeps letting me do it," Hernandez said. "Doesn’t matter, whatever I can do to help this team to get to that next game.”

He has been a major contributor on a potent offense in a number of roles, making the Patriots a tough team to slow down.

“What Aaron added today, being able to run the ball out of the backfield, he’s been able to do that in different situations throughout the course of the year,” veteran guard Brian Waters said. “We’ve gotten him in on some reverses and pitches and things like that. He just adds another weapon.”

As the Broncos discovered Saturday night.