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Analysis: Gronk's return gives Patriots a boost

HOUSTON – Houston, we have no problem.

Well, almost no problem, but we'll address that in a moment.

In the meantime, it's as if the past two weeks never happened.

After an uncharacteristic two-game losing skid, which saw the Patriots drop to the third seed in the AFC playoffs, New England restored order to the football universe. By corralling the Texans with a well-designed and well-enough executed game plan on both sides of the football, and with help from Denver and Cincinnati both losing earlier in the day, the Patriots climbed back on top of the postseason contenders list.

J.J. Watt? More like J.J. Who?

Houston's best defensive player – and maybe the NFL's – rarely had his name called all night. It certainly didn't help that he was playing with a huge club-like cast on his left hand, which he broke during practice earlier in the week, but New England's offensive game plan was well-designed and executed to keep Watt away from QB Tom Brady and to run the ball wherever Watt wasn't. Aside from a few prepackaged video montages on the NRG Stadium big screens, you'd hardly have known Watt was on the field Sunday night.  

As a result, New England's offense was clicking, if not perfectly, at least more efficiently than it did a week ago, when it was without Rob Gronkowski. The league's best tight end, hobbled by a bone bruised and sprained right knee, came out with an enthusiastic flourish during pregame warmups that spilled over into the game. Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass and a couple of long passes from Tom Brady in crucial situations to help the Patriots control the football and the scoreboard the entire evening.

"I feel good, and it was great to be back out there," he told reporters post-game. "There was urgency and there wasn't urgency [to get back on the field]. The urgency was, I just wanted to be back out there with my teammates. You miss a game, it's hard to watch. At the same time, you have to be smart about it, which we were, as an organization and myself. Just rehabbed really hard and everything felt good, so I was good to go.

"It's always good to make a play, score a touchdown, but the icing on the cake is the win."

The win over Houston clinched a playoff spot for the 11-2 Patriots, who once again own the AFC's top seed with three games left in the regular season.

"I honestly didn't even know that until you told me," cornerback Logan Ryan claimed, "so… I guess it's good."

"It was just satisfying to come here and get that win," Gronkowski emphasized. "That's all that mattered to this team. That's all we wanted, to get back on the winning track. It's cool that we clinch a playoff spot and all, but we still got a couple more games and that's all we're focused on. Just got to take it one week at a time."

One concern that continues to haunt New England, though, is injuries. Four players – running back LeGarrette Blount, safety Devin McCourty, defensive lineman Dominique Easley, and linebacker Jonathan Freeny – were banged up against Houston and could not finish the game. How serious their injuries are remains to be seen, but the weekly list of wounded Patriots remains a frustrating obstacle that will need to resolve itself soon if New England hopes to advance in the playoffs.

For now, however, it is comforting for the Patriots to know that they'll definitely be back there.

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