(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By HOWARD ULMAN
AP Sports Writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were widely regarded as the top tight end duo in the NFL.
Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan are blocking in anonymity as their successors, helping pave the way for New England's return to the AFC championship game.
''The game, with the way it is now, no one ever talks about a blocking tight end,'' Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said Wednesday. ''It is how many catches they have. The tight ends on our team have been vital to our running success.''
The Patriots' ground attack is rolling - 267 and 234 yards in the last two games - as they head into Sunday's game at Denver that will determine whether they or the Broncos reach the Super Bowl.
New England won the first meeting between the teams this season, 34-31 in overtime in Foxborough on Nov. 24. Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass that day then went out with a season-ending knee injury two weeks later. He already had missed the first six games while recovering from forearm and back surgeries and ended up playing just seven games.
Hernandez was arrested in late June, charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
He and Gronkowski combined for 106 catches and 16 touchdowns last season. In their three seasons together, they totaled 362 receptions for 56 touchdowns.
The totals for the tight ends the Patriots will use against the Broncos?
Just 37 receptions and four touchdowns in four seasons for Hoomanawanui and 16 receptions and two touchdowns in five seasons for Mulligan.
''They've lost key players and you've got to find your strength as a team once you do that,'' Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. ''They lost Gronkowski. He was a big part of their offense. So they've got to find other ways to beat teams.''
The Patriots' offensive system is broad enough to accommodate stylistic changes at different positions so they can adjust when personnel change, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
''Mike and Matt have been a very big part of what we're doing,'' he said. ''I know that they may not have the production in terms of catches in the passing game, but that certainly doesn't diminish their role that they play for us in the pass game. They definitely do a nice job in protection.''
They're also a major part of the running game.
''They don't get much credit for it, but you're never going to get to the edge if your tight end can't block,'' Mankins said. ''There are a lot of plays that we run right behind those guys so they've got to do a good job for our backs to have success.''
It's not that Hoomanawanui and Mulligan can't or don't want to catch the ball.
''Who wouldn't?'' Hoomanawanui said. ''It's always nice if you can be a factor in the passing game and the running game, but (we'll do) whatever it takes to win and, lately for us, that's been running the ball.''
The Patriots have backs with different styles. LeGarrette Blount is powerful, Stevan Ridley is elusive, Shane Vereen is small and fast, and Brandon Bolden combines those attributes.
''When you have four talented running backs, it's a great opportunity to go out there and showcase my skills as a blocker,'' Mulligan said, ''because you know they're going to make you look good.''
One of his two receptions this season was a 1-yard touchdown in a 30-23 win at Atlanta in the fourth game.
Hoomanawanui's only touchdown among his 12 catches was a spectacular one-handed grab for a 13-yard score in the 14th game. But the Patriots lost to the Miami Dolphins 24-20.
''I would have traded it for a win,'' he said.
At least he finally got some recognition. Friends and family members still remind him of that catch. So did his former teammate at Illinois, Colts cornerback Vontae Davis.
They saw each other last Saturday night when New England beat Indianapolis 43-22 in an AFC divisional-round game.
''He said it's nothing new to him,'' Hoomanawanui recalled with a smile. ''He said he had seen it multiple times whether in practice or in games at Illinois.''
In the NFL, the receiving chances are few for him and Mulligan. Their blocking opportunities are many.
''It's something we definitely take pride in,'' Hoomanawanui said. ''It's something I look at right after a game, see what kind of rushing yards we're putting up.''
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AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.
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AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org

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