FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Football can be a grueling game, physically and emotionally demanding and draining. But when you take a look at the New England Patriots tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, you remember that football can be fun, too.

From Gronkowski’s effervescent smile to his thunderous touchdown spikes, to Hernandez turning to the crowd and performing the “Making it rain” gesture after scoring a touchdown — holding his left hand high and brushing the fingertips with his right hand — it’s obvious that football is not just big business to them.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Gronkowski said. “It’s great coming out, especially being with all your boys, all your teammates. It’s like family basically.

“Just going out there and joking around with your teammates all the time, working hard. We’ve got 53 other guys grinding with you out on the practice field all the time, it gets you motivated, gets you working hard, too. It’s cool coming in, seeing everyone. You’re never bored. I hate being bored and everything so I love coming out, being with the team all the time.”

Gronkowski and Hernandez are at the tip of the evolution of the tight end in professional football. Both selected in the 2010 draft — Gronkowski in the second round out of Arizona, Hernandez in the fourth out of Florida — they have combined to make the Patriots offense among the most diverse in all of football.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski simply had the most productive season of any tight end in NFL history: 90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 touchdowns (the latter two single-season records). The 6-1, 245-pound Hernandez caught 79 passes for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.

And then came the playoffs. Last week, Gronkowski tied an NFL playoff record with three touchdown receptions in a 45-10 blowout of Denver. He had 10 catches for 145 yards overall. Hernandez? All he did was lead the Patriots in rushing — yes, rushing — with 61 yards and also caught a touchdown pass.

They’re what make the Patriots so dangerous today when New England takes on Baltimore in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium at 3 p.m.

“With their two tight ends (the Patriots offense) is really special,” said Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs. “You really just have to try to contain it. I think Hernandez … he’s a phenomenal talent. Gronkowski, the only thing I don’t like about him is that he went to the U of A (Suggs attended Arizona State).

“They are really good. We definitely have our hands full. This will probably be the best offense we’ll see all year.”

What the tight ends do is open everything up. Their success allows wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch to work the seams and the sidelines. Their versatility — Gronkowski has developed into a devastating blocker and Hernandez moves as well as any running back — opens up all aspects of the game.

“There are a lot of people in New England keeping me up at night,” Baltimore defensivive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “(Gronkowski) got 17 touchdowns in the regular season, three in the playoff game… Hernandez is a great athlete. They move him all over the place. He’s huge in the red zone, up and down the field, so they’re definitely a matchup nightmare. We’ve got to do a great job, collectively as a defense, taking care of those guys.”

When asked if the two compete against each other, Hernandez simply laughed.

“Maybe in college I was competitive against him, or high school,” he said. “I would say now we are so close we are more like brothers and I lot of people just say that to say it, but we really are.”

And, like brothers, said Gronkowski, “We have a lot of fun together … We’re just trying to help each other out now. We’re just trying to get to the same goal and that is to be working hard every day and just be focusing on every game.”

Quarterback Tom Brady certainly appreciates what he has.

“They’re obviously a huge part of what we do,” he said. “They are on the field quite a bit and they’ve been healthy so it’s been good to have them both out there. Between them and what the receivers are able to do and the running backs, it’s a good group of skilled players and we try to get guys into a position where they’re going things they’ve very good at.

“(Hernandez and Gronkowski) are good with the ball in their hands and break a lot of tackles, so it’s definitely a plus for us.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.