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Hernandez has sprain of MCL

Patriots tight end likely out 2 weeks

Chad Ochocinco might get a chance to win over more fans this Sunday. Chad Ochocinco might get a chance to win over more fans this Sunday.
(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / September 20, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots likely will be without versatile tight end Aaron Hernandez for two weeks, after he suffered a medial collateral ligament sprain against San Diego Sunday, a league source said yesterday.

The injury was one of several the Patriots suffered, almost all in the second half. Rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling left the game with what was announced as a thigh injury and did not return; punter Zoltan Mesko had teammate James Ihedigbo blocked into his left (kicking) knee after a punt; safety Patrick Chung left the field clutching his right arm but returned to the game wearing a hard black cast, and cornerback Kyle Arrington suffered a concussion.

And those are just the injuries we know about.

Mesko had a brace put on his knee on the sideline but did not punt again. He did, however, serve as holder for Stephen Gostkowski’s final point-after of the game, which is his other job with the Patriots.

The timetable for Mesko is unknown, though he did undergo an MRI yesterday, a second league source said. Mesko said last night that he was “feeling great . . . we’ll take it one day at a time and see how it goes.’’

Hernandez has become a trusted target for quarterback Tom Brady, and has pulled in seven passes in each of the Patriots’ first two games for 165 yards, with a touchdown in each game.

Coach Bill Belichick was asked how the Patriots would compensate if Hernandez, who at 6 feet 1 inch, 245 pounds, is almost a receiver in a tight end’s body, were to miss any time.

“We have a lot of different skill players in our offense. We have a lot of different formations and things,’’ he said. “As you’ve seen, we use multiple personnel groups, multiple formations, so whatever we have to do, we’ll use some combination of those.’’

With Hernandez unable to go, a couple of players could see an increase in their opportunities this Sunday in Buffalo:

Chad Ochocinco may have Brady look his way more often. Hernandez is frequently split out wide - he also lines up in the slot, on the line, and in the backfield - and Ochocinco could be the one to fill that role. The veteran, acquired in a trade with Cincinnati as training camp opened, played just 17 snaps against San Diego and was targeted twice, though he pulled in both passes, a third-down conversion that led to the Patriots’ first touchdown, and a 30-yard gain on their second TD drive.

Taylor Price has yet to play this season. He’s been hampered in practice by a hamstring injury, but he opened some eyes with his performance in the preseason. Deion Branch has lauded Price’s on-field smarts and talent, and now may be a good time to show those off. Plus, if he can’t get on the field now, it may be fair to wonder if he ever will at all.

Matthew Slater’s first career reception was the first pass completion Brady had in Miami, a gain of 46 yards. He was also targeted on another deep ball that night, though he was barely on the field with the offense against San Diego. Slater likely will see his opportunity to contribute vary week to week, depending on the opponent.

A fourth option is Dan Gronkowski. Signed just a couple of weeks ago, the older brother of Rob Gronkowski has not yet had a pass thrown his way, though he’s had his name called after being flagged once each game for false starts. The 6-5 tight end had eight catches in 12 games for the Broncos last year, and yesterday said he’s already comfortable with the New England playbook thanks to his experience in Denver when former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was coach.

“I’ve done a lot of it when I was with Josh McDaniels, so it’s very similar,’’ he said. “The concepts are a little different, so I just have to get out there and do it once. It’s mostly techniques and stuff, so I just keep in going at it.’’

If Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien call his number, Gronkowski vowed to be ready.

“Definitely. They expect me to know everything and I’m at that point, so I’m ready to get in there and help out the team however I can,’’ he said.

As is frequently said in New England, when one player goes down, another one may have to step up. But given all that Hernandez means to the offense, it may take more than one player to fill his role until he returns.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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