FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In the Bill Belichick regime of the New England Patriots, no one player (OK, except for maybe Tom Brady) has been deemed more important than another.

So it should come as no surprise that Belichick dismissed the loss of tight end Aaron Hernandez to an early injury as a factor in New England’s 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

“Well, you can’t just go into the game just counting on one guy, any guy,” said Belichick in his brief press conference following the game. “Everybody has to be ready to adjust. It’s not the first time a player has been injured in a game.”

No it wasn’t. And, as Brady said, “Guys go in and out and you lose guys over the course of a game, and you have to be able to adjust. I’m sure he’s not going to be the only one we lose this year at some point.”

But Hernandez is no typical player. A hybrid receiver — part tight end/part wide receiver — he gives Brady options in the middle or down the field that no one else does.

And when he was forced to leave with an ankle injury on New England’s third offensive play of the game — injured when teammate Julian Edelman rolled up his right leg as he was being tackled — the Cardinals had a lot less to worry about.

“When he went down, it took away a lot of things they were able to do,” said Arizona safety James Sanders, a former Patriot. “It’s unfortunate for them, but it helped us out as a unit. I just pray that he’s healthy.”

So do the Patriots. They need him to catch the ball, to block for Stevan Ridley, and to take pressure off Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd.

If he’s out for an extended period of time, the Patriots will need to revamp their game plans.

“He’s a really tough guy to match up against,” said Welker, who finished with five catches for 95 yards. “I think everybody across the board has got to pick up the slack and make some plays out there in his place.”

WITH HIS five catches, Welker became the Patriots’ all-time reception leader, passing Troy Brown — who was honored at the half for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame.

Welker now has 562 catches with the Patriots. Brown, the first Patriot into the team’s Hall with three Super Bowl rings, finished his career with 557.

THIS WAS the Patriots’ first home-opening loss at Gillette Stadium, where they had been 11-0. The last time the Patriots lost their home opener was Sept. 23, 2001, a 10-3 decision to the New York Jets at Foxboro Stadium.

That loss dropped them to 0-2. More important, Drew Bledsoe was injured in that game and Brady took over as quarterback — and led the Patriots to the Super Bowl championship over St. Louis.

BLEDSOE AND Brown teamed up one last time for a completion. After Brown thanked the crowd for all its support over the years — “Without you we wouldn’t have had the energy or the courage to keep fighting the way we did,” he said — owner Bob Kraft asked Bledsoe, who was on hand, to throw one more pass to Brown, who quickly donned his familiar No. 80 jersey.

The two hooked up on a nice short pass, which Brown ran all the way to the end zone.

ROB GRONKOWSKI, when asked about his two late penalties — a holding call that wiped out a potential winning touchdown run by Danny Woodhead and a false start that pushed the ball back before Steven Gostkowski’s failed field-goal attempt: “You saw me out there. They were not good. You can’t have penalties.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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