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Aaron Hernandez Key for New England Patriots in AFC Championship Game

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are once again without superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski heading into a critical game–the AFC Championship. For the second straight year, the Patriots will square off against the Baltimore Ravens for the chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Ravens really should have won the game last year–one of those “kill the kicker” instances–but New England came up short in the Super Bowl anyway. Now without Gronkowski, the Patriots will rely heavily on Aaron Hernandez.

The former Florida Gators standout hasn’t put up the gaudy numbers that Gronkowski has during his NFL career, but Hernandez is a star in his own right and would probably put up numbers that rivaled Gronkowski’s if he was on a different team with a superstar quarterback.

Now he not only gets that chance, but the opportunity comes on the game’s second-biggest stage and then it will be the biggest stage if the Patriots knock off the Ravens at home.

Hernandez missed six games this year but still hauled in 51 passes for 483 yards and five scores. He probably won’t be the red zone threat Gronkowksi usually is, but Hernandez will need to help stretch the field agains the Ravens to allow teammates Wes Welker, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead to get open underneath.

Although the Patriots’ running game has improved this year, everyone knows this is a pass-first team and that will always be the case with Tom Brady under center. Of course, Brady will find ways to work without Gronkowski as he’s done in the past, but unlike those previous instances, Hernandez will play a much bigger role this time around.

Jeric Griffin is the Director of Content for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JericGriffin, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google

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