Hernandez makes up for earlier fumble

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The pivotal pass not only zipped into Aaron Hernandez's hands, it also made sure goat horns didn't remain attached to his New England Patriots helmet.

In the blink of an eye, that's how quickly the fortunes changed on a personal note for Hernandez, not to mention for the Pats.

The second-year tight end snagged an 8-yard touchdown bullet from Tom Brady with only 22 seconds remaining in the game, giving the Patriots a stirring 20-16 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

That diving, lunging catch, in the middle of the back of the end zone as he was crossing from left to right, atoned for his costly red zone fumble late in the third quarter of what was then a 13-13 game.

On that play, Hernandez caught a short pass from Brady at the Cowboys' 17-yard line. But Dallas linebacker Bradie James pried the ball loose as he was hauling down Hernandez, and the Cowboys' Terence Newman scooped it up.

It was the first lost fumble for the Patriots' offensive unit this season. It also was the second red zone misplay for Hernandez in as many weeks. The previous Sunday he had a catchable ball tip off his hands, resulting in the first regular-season red zone interception at home for Brady in his career.

When Hernandez got to the sideline after Sunday's fumble, he was given words of encouragement.

"As a young player you tend to get down [after such plays]," Hernandez said. "But Tom, the coaches and some of the players told me to forget about it, to keep going. I forgot about it and I made a play at the end. Mistakes are going to happen in football."

That Hernandez was in position to make the game-winning catch, or that anyone was in position to catch a game winner, didn't seem to be in the cards the way the Dallas defense had been shackling the Patriots' generally potent offense, especially in the second half.

New England hadn't scored in the second half until getting the ball one final time, at its own 20-yard line with 2:31 to go and only one timeout remaining.

But Brady began marching the Patriots down the field. The first of his eight completions (in nine attempts) on the drive went to Hernandez for 16 yards. By the time Hernandez saw his next pass from Brady, New England was facing a second-and-4 at the Dallas 8-yard line. There were only 27 seconds left when the ball was snapped, and the Pats were out of timeouts.

Brady was looking for an open receiver, and it turned out to be Hernandez. It wasn't as if Hernandez was wide open, but Brady threaded the needle for the touchdown.

"They had double coverage on a couple of guys," said Brady of the game-winning play.

"They had combo coverage on Deion [Branch] and Wes [Welker] on one side and they had combo coverage on the other side. I looked to Gronk [second-year tight end Rob Gronkowski] and when [a defender] went for him, I looked for Aaron on the 'in' route," Brady said.

Hernandez's recollection of the play was similar and uncomplicated.

"I had an 'in' route. Gronk had an 'out' route. He [Gronk] is great. He drew the safety's attention. Tom threw a great ball. I just had to make the catch," said Hernandez, a 6-foot-1, 245-pound former star at the University of Florida.

It was the eighth catch of the game for Hernandez, who was playing in his second game after having missed two in a row because of knee woes. The 21-year-old accounted for 68 yards Sunday.

"He does a lot of good things," said Brady of Hernandez. "He has become a dependable player. He runs very good routes. The coaches always say a receiver has to get open, catch the ball and then do something with it. He does that. He has made a big jump from his first year to his second year. That's why he was out there at the end."

And for Hernandez and the Patriots, all's well that ended well on Sunday against the Cowboys.

Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.