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A healthy contribution

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / October 10, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The news came roughly an hour before kickoff: Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots’ versatile second-year tight end who was listed as questionable after missing the previous two games with a left knee injury, would be active against the rival Jets yesterday.

It wasn’t long before he proved just how active he would be.

On the Patriots’ first possession, quarterback Tom Brady went deep to Hernandez on third and 7 from their 43-yard line. The pass eluded Hernandez’s outstretched arms and the drive stalled, but it was a meaningful play nonetheless in the Patriots’ 30-21 win.

The message had been sent to the Jets, who clogged the middle of the field and frustrated the Patriots’ passing game in their 28-21 playoff victory at Gillette Stadium last January, that the Patriots were going to take their shots deep if they were there.

“I was definitely excited when that ball was in the air,’’ said Hernandez, who finished with five receptions for 56 yards despite wearing a bulky brace on his knee to protect the medial collateral ligament he sprained in Week 2 against the Chargers. “Maybe if I had my brace off I’d have caught up to that ball.’’

Brady went long to Hernandez four times - three down the middle, one down the left seam - in the game’s first 17:01, and all came on third down. None of the four passes was completed, but Hernandez drew two penalties on the four throws, including a 38-yard pass interference call on defensive back Donald Strickland that turned third and 26 at the Patriots 12 into a first down at midfield.

“Aaron’s such a great player,’’ said receiver Wes Welker, who had five receptions of his own for 124 yards. “Any time you can get more weapons out there on the field and more places that we can go with the ball, it’s always going to help us out. It’s always great to get those weapons out there.’’

Hernandez, who was targeted a team-high nine times and caught the final five passes Brady threw his way, said Welker gave him some advice about how to play with a knee brace. Welker wore one last season after suffering a significant knee injury during the final regular-season game in 2009.

“Wes told me it’s going to feel a little weird,’’ said Hernandez, who has 19 receptions for 221 yards in three games. “But when you’re in a game, in the moment, with all the fans out there, on national TV, you kind of forget about that. It doesn’t take long. As soon as you catch that first ball or make that first block, you get kind of comfortable and it feels like it usually does.’’

Coach Bill Belichick praised Hernandez for putting in the work necessary to come back from the injury as soon as he did.

“He’s in here early, he stays late, he’s leaving when the coaches are leaving,’’ said Belichick. “He was getting a lot of extra treatment. He was able to come out and practice later on in the week and handle a little more each day and he kept getting better, so we felt confident going into the game, and he felt confident going into the game. He got behind the defense a couple of times, so obviously he has his speed back.’’

But it wasn’t a flawless return.

If Hernandez showed any rust, it was on the final play of the first half. With the Patriots leading, 10-7, and facing second and 10 from the Jets 11, Brady spotted Hernandez on the left side of the end zone, just inside the goal line. The pass might have been slightly higher than Brady intended, but Hernandez was open and it’s a catch he usually makes.

Instead, it bounced off his hands into the waiting arms of cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who if not for a saving tackle by Nate Solder at midfield might have taken it the distance and changed the tenor of the game. It was Brady’s first career regular-season interception in the red zone at home.

“That’s just on me,’’ said Hernandez. “Big-time players have to make big-time plays. I came up short there. I’ll try to make up for it next week.’’

He was asked if Brady said anything to him about the play.

“He’s just always positive,’’ Hernandez said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, let it go,’ but obviously as a player you love the game and it hurts you. It’ll still bother me until this night’s over.’’

But it’s a lot easier to forget in the aftermath of a victory - particularly one against the Jets.

“Every win is a big win in this league,’’ Hernandez said. “But against a rival like the Jets, to get one in the division, sure, that’s huge.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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