In the 2011 NFL season, the New England Patriots also reached the Super Bowl on the strength of an extraordinary explosive offense that contained a record- setting quarterback, a wide receiver with over 100 catches and another with six Pro Bowl citations to his credit.
So what's changed, if anything, in the four years in between?
Well for starters, that decorated wide receiver in 2007 was Randy Moss, a controversial acquisition prior to that season who ended up setting a new league standard with 23 touchdown receptions in one of the most dominant offensive campaigns ever produced.
The Patriots hoped history would repeat itself when the team traded for the equally-accomplished and polarizing Chad Ochocinco in late July, but weren't able to capture lightning in a bottle this time. The colorful veteran had the least productive season of his 11-year career, finishing with a mere 15 catches while barely seeing the field during his new team's playoff run.
If solely comparing the numbers of those two star players, it's hard to make an argument that this current version of the New England offense could actually be superior to the nearly unstoppable juggernaut that put up an NFL-record 589 points during a 16-0 regular season in 2007.
The sensational second-year duo has helped to revolutionize a tight end position that's traditionally been viewed as a secondary outlet for quarterbacks, shattering much more than stereotypes in their instant ascension to stardom. The pair's combined 2011 totals of 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns were by far the most by a tight end tandem in NFL history, well ahead of the 163 grabs and 1,927 yards compiled by a foursome of San Diego Chargers in 1984.
Gronkowski also etched his name into the individual record books with a spectacular sophomore season that saw the punishing 22-year-old rack up 1,327 receiving yards and an NFL-best 17 touchdown catches, both the most ever by a tight end. He would add three more scoring grabs in New England's 45-10 shellacking of Denver in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, a game in which the 2010 second-round draft choice hauled in 10 Brady passes for 145 yards.
Though Hernandez's stats aren't quite as gaudy, the athletic Connecticut native still made a sizeable contribution to an offense that amassed the third-most net passing yards (5,084) in a season in NFL annals. He came through with 79 catches and 910 receiving yards despite sitting out a pair of games with a knee sprain, surpassing the 100-yard mark three times over the course of the year.
"Those guys are exceptional tight ends and they've been Brady's go-to guys all year long along with [slot receiver] Wes Welker," said New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle, whose team will once again be the Patriots' Super Bowl opponent in yet another striking similarity between the 2007 and 2011 seasons. "They present a great challenge."
Rolle and his defensive mates may be catching a giant break in this championship rematch, however, after Gronkowski suffered a significant sprain of his left ankle in New England's narrow victory over Baltimore in the AFC title game on Jan. 22. Though the invaluable All-Pro had shed his walking boot during Tuesday's Media Day and is fully expected to play in the Super Bowl, it's likely he'll be limited physically to at least some extent.
"He's such a huge weapon and causes so many mismatches it makes it hard for defenses to focus on one player," said Hernandez. "Obviously if he's a hundred percent, that's what we need."
While having Gronkowski at potentially less than full strength is an obvious concern, it's not as if the Patriots will be lacking offensive options when they take the field at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium seeking to avenge their 17-14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Not only can New England boast a three-time champion quarterback in Brady, whose 5,235 passing yards in 2011 ranks as the second-highest amount ever, but the ever-reliable Welker came through with his fourth 100-catch season in five years and fellow wideout Deion Branch was the MVP of New England's Super Bowl XXXIX triumph over Philadelphia seven years ago.
And of course, there's Hernandez, whose ability to excel in a number of different roles has made the Patriots an even more difficult foe to defend. Though a bit undersized by tight-end standards at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, the 22-year-old's above-average speed and agility allows creative coordinator Bill O'Brien to often deploy him as a jacked-up wide receiver who often lines up in the slot, and he's even been utilized as a running back at times to add another wrinkle for opponents. In the Divisional Round rout of the Broncos, Hernandez led New England with 61 rushing yards on five carries.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski is more the prototypical tight end whose remarkable exploits as a receiver often overshadow his prowess and value as an in-line blocker.
"Those two guys complement each other well," noted Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "They compete against each other in a good way. They learn from each other. They've done a great job for us over the past two seasons. I'm glad we have them."
Below is a capsule look at the offense of the New England Patriots, with regular season statistics in parentheses::
Quarterback: Brady (5235 passing yards, 39 TD, 12 INT) had already entered this postseason with a laundry list of achievements, and the two-time league MVP further enhanced his legacy by tying an NFL playoff record with six touchdown passes in the Denver game. He then matched boyhood idol Joe Montana for the most postseason wins (16) by a signal-caller in the AFC Championship ousting of Baltimore, despite tossing two interceptions and playing poorly in his own analysis. The 34-year-old has still generated an excellent 25-to-5 touchdown- to-interception ratio during the 10-game win streak the Patriots bring into Indianapolis, and the 39 scoring strikes he accounted for in the regular season were the second-most of his glorious career.
Running Backs: Though it lacks a true standout, New England's backfield-by- committee approach has provided a useful complement to the team's passing proficiency. Leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis (667 rushing yards, 11 TD) is a strong between-the-tackles performer who's scored 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons, though the undrafted free-agent's most impressive stat is the zero fumbles over 562 career touches he's had over his four-year tenure. That impeccable track record is the main reason why he's ahead of more-talented rookie Stevan Ridley (441 rushing yards, 1 TD), benched for the AFC Championship after losing a fumble against Denver the week prior, on the depth chart. Former Jets castoff Danny Woodhead (351 rushing yards, 1 TD, 18 receptions) now holds down the third-down role held for years by 13-year vet Kevin Faulk, who's been used sparingly since returning from an ACL tear in midseason.
Wide Receivers: No New England player benefited more by the emergence of Gronkowski and Hernandez than Welker (122 receptions, 1569 yards, 9 TD), whose 1,569 receiving yards eclipsed Moss' club season mark set in 2007 and ranked second in the NFL this year, and the prolific slot specialist was a real handful for the Giants in both Super Bowl XLII (11 catches, 103 yards) as well as the Patriots' 24-20 loss to New York back in November (9 catches, 136 yards). Branch (51 receptions, 5 TD) also owns a wealth of big-game experience, having been an integral part of two previous championship teams during his first tour of duty with the organization from 2002-06, but Ochocinco (15 receptions, 1 TD) has been essentially an afterthought following a slow adjustment to a new scheme, having fallen behind both Welker clone Julian Edelman and ex-Jaguars washout Tiquan Underwood in the pecking order late in the season.
Tight Ends: The health status of Gronkowski (90 receptions, 1327 yards, 17 TD) has been one of the most followed storylines of this year's Big Game, and for good reason. He was a big factor in New England's Week 9 meeting with the Giants, netting 101 yards and a touchdown on eight catches, and eight of Brady's 12 interceptions during the regular season came on plays in which Gronkowski and sidekick Hernandez (79 receptions, 7 TD) weren't on the field together. Hernandez has been more of a focal point as of late, however, having averaged six catches and 85 yards over the Patriots' six most recent wins.
Offensive Line: Usually an unsung part of New England's sustained success, this five-man group has held up pretty well in 2011 despite two key regulars, center Dan Koppen and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, having missed the majority of the season due to injuries. The Patriots have started three players since longtime pivot man Koppen fractured his ankle in the Week 1 opener, with capable substitute Dan Connolly manning the position for most of the way and filling in adequately, and promising rookie Nate Solder has earned his stripes by starting 13 times in place of Vollmer, who hasn't played since November because of an ankle problem but will be ready if needed for the Super Bowl. The remainder of the line is loaded with experience and prestige, as guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters have been named to 10 Pro Bowls between them and left tackle Matt Light has served as Brady's trusted blind-side protector since breaking into the league in 2001.