Ravens vs. Patriots: New England Must Lean on Aaron Hernandez Against Baltimore

Stephen SheehanCorrespondent IJanuary 17, 2013

Aaron Hernandez is the key to New England's return to the Super Bowl.
Aaron Hernandez is the key to New England's return to the Super Bowl.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

If the New England Patriots hope to repeat history against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship, they must feed the ball to Aaron Hernandez

The third-year pro out of Florida is the moving chess piece for Josh McDaniels and is one of the top matchup nightmares in the NFL

An ankle injury limited one-half of New England's dynamic tight end duo in 2012, but with fellow star Rob Gronkowski out for the remainder of the year, the onus falls on McDaniels and Tom Brady to get the ball in Hernandez's hands. 

And if New England plans on punching its ticket to New Orlenas, it'll have to lean on the 6'1", 245-pound playmaker more than ever. 

Unlike Gronk, Hernandez isn't asked to line up with his hand in the dirt and take on a defensive end.

He's not 6'6", 265 pounds with a freakish wingspan. 

And he certainly hasn't trademarked one of the coolest touchdown celebrations in football. 

What Hernandez does bring is fantastic run-after-the-catch skills, incredible quickness and speed, underrated strength and the versatility to line up all over the offense. 

So with his running mate out of the lineup, the guy who often plays second fiddle to Gronk will have to be the guy for New England. 

While Hernandez can't replicate the total package that Gronkowski brought to the table, he's arguably a more dangerous receiving threat. Few tight ends can match his quickness breaking out of routes, and his footwork is among the best in the game. Although he has a tendency to drop the ball a few too many times, he's also capable of making some fantastic catches, particularly in the red zone. 

Often operating as the third option in the passing game in his Patriots career, Hernandez has still snagged 18 touchdowns in just 38 regular-season games. Last postseason, he proved to be a go-to weapon for Brady, recording 19 catches for 188 yards and two TDs. 

And based on his two career outings against the Ravens (11 catches for 127 yards, four carries for 27 yards), Hernandez deserves a lion's share of the touches against Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Co. 

With Wes Welker continuing to shred defenses out of the slot, Brandon Lloyd making some key catches and the running game chugging along, no other player on New England's roster presents such a big-play threat like No. 81. 

Match him up against the Ravens' heavier linebackers (Paul Kruger, Terrell Suggs), and the results could be lethal. 

His knack for getting open should work nicely against Baltimore's linebackers, who aren't exactly coverage mavens, and his fantastic open-field skills could pay dividends against a secondary that can be suspect tacklers. 

In the case of the Patriots: No Gronk, no problem. 

Hernandez can fix that.