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Random Thoughts: Gronk's return helps get Pats back on track

The Patriots put an end to their brief two-game losing streak and regained the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC in the process. Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots 27-6 victory over the Houston Texans.

GRONK KNEEDED –In a bit of a surprise the Patriots got the services of Rob Gronkowski back and it didn't take long for him to make his presence felt. On the second drive of the night Tom Brady found him deep down the left sideline for a 45-yard pickup that kickstarted the game's first touchdown drive. Gronkowski took part in roughly two-thirds of the snaps (42 of 66 plays before leaving for the night), and finished with four catches for 87 yards and a touchdown, going over the 1,000-yard mark for the third time in his career. Gronkowski's presence opens up the offense for everyone and for the first time in four weeks Brady completed better than 70 percent of his passes as a result.

LOGAN'S RUN –Logan Ryan enjoyed arguably his best game of the season, helping to limit the dangerous DeAndre Hopkins to three catches for 52 yards. Ryan ran stride-for-stride with Hopkins twice on deep balls and was able to prevent the completions each time. He did get beat for a 40-yard gain down the sideline late in the game but overall was in great position most of the night. Hopkins is as talented as any receiver in the league and Ryan did his part to keep him in check.

QUICK STUDY –Newcomer Leonard Johnson didn't waste much time before getting his feet wet in New England. After signing midweek following his release off injured reserve in Tampa, Johnson served as the nick back for the Patriots and was on the field on the second play of the night. The veteran corner came up with a nice pass break-up on a key third down early that allowed the Patriots to get off the field. He did not appear out of place at all despite seeing his first action since the summer, and added a huge play on fourth down in the third quarter when he knocked down another pass that kept Houston off the board.

TURN DOWN FOR WATT –The Texans knew J.J. Watt was going to see plenty of attention from the Patriots and the fact that we would be playing with a cast on his broken left hand only made things worse. Watt was forced to stay on the defensive left side most of the night and saw two and sometimes three Patriots blockers on most pass play. At times he was chipped, others he was doubled and on some he was both chipped and later doubled. Watt appeared frustrated at times and was held in check throughout the game.

MARTIN RETURNS – Keyshawn Martin enjoyed a solid night stepping into the top return man role as Danny Amendola was limited to strictly receiver. Martin turned in a pair of excellent punt returns that set up scores in the first half. The first went for 21 yards to the Patriots 48 and led to a touchdown. The second resulted in a 12-yard return that allowed the Patriots to set up shop at the Houston 41 late in the first half. Shortly thereafter the Patriots had another touchdown and a commanding 17-6 halftime lead. Martin also caught three passes for 23 yards and a touchdown in the opening 30 minutes playing arguably his best game of the year against his former team. Unfortunately things turned sour for Martin on one play in the second half when he muffed a punt and allowed the Texans to take over at the Patriots 21. Fortunately the defense forced Houston into a four-and-out and didn't even surrender a point, but Martin was replaced by Amendola on punts the rest of the night.

FORMATION DIVERSITY –The Patriots featured some different looks offensively at times during the first half. On first-and-goal in the first quarter, New England had three players in the backfield as tight ends Asante Cleveland and Michael Williams flanked LeGarrette Blount. The ensuing run resulted in just a 1-yard gain but the extra tight ends continued to be featured throughout the night.

View a collection of the best images from the Patriots regular season game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Sunday, December 13, 2015.

MAS*H UNIT –The victory did not come without a price as the Patriots once again lost some key players. Blount went down with a hip injury in the second quarter and did not return. Jonathan Freeny left the game in the first half with a hand injury and did not return. Dominique Easley later was lost to a thigh injury and also did not return, although he was seen riding a stationary bike without any visible discomfort during the game. Devin McCourty was the next starter to go down as the safety left in the second half with an ankle injury and did not return. Finally, Bryan Stork left the game in the fourth quarter with a right leg injury and was replaced by David Andrews for the rest of the way. Stork later said he simply had a problem with his cleats and that was the reason he left the game. Also, Patrick Chung appeared to aggravate a foot injury he's been dealing with the last two weeks but missed just one play before returning. Overall it was another busy night for the Patriots medical staff.

MAYO HOLDS UP –Jerod Mayo enjoyed a strong night in the run game, finishing with 8 tackles (7 solo) while seeing additional playing time after Freeny's injury. He appears to be moving around better in recent weeks and has been active in the front seven. Mayo was a key figure in the Patriots run defense, and even though Houston had some moments on the ground overall New England's performance in that area was greatly improved and Mayo was a big part of that.

SHEAR-D DOMINANCE –The Patriots got a huge performance from Jabaal Sheard, who terrorized Houston's right tackle Derek Newton. Sheard finished with 5 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 2 sacks (for a loss of 34 yards), 2 forced fumbles and an additional tackle for loss. It was a dominant effort by Sheard, who now has 6 sacks for the season after recording just 2 all of last season with Cleveland. He's also been a stout performer against the run while playing inside and outside in various packages. He's been a quality free agent signing for the defense.

STILL STRUGGLING –Brandon LaFell has been struggling a bit since returning from the PUP list in Week 6. In his first game back against the Jets LaFell dropped no fewer than a half dozen passes, and in seemingly every game since he's suffered at least one notable drop. That was the case once again in Houston when he was able to catch only five of the eight passes thrown his way. He did make a terrific10-yard catch late in the first half near the sideline when he managed to keep his feet in bounds at the 1-yard line to set up a touchdown. But too often he's been unable to consistently catch the ball and that has impacted the offense, especially since Julian Edelman left the lineup a month ago. LaFell needs to return to the form he displayed last year if the offense is to return to its early-season levels of production.

EXTRA POINTS –The Patriots clinched a playoff spot for the 17th time in 22 years under the ownership of Robert Kraft. It's the sixth straight year the Patriots have made it to the postseason. … New England improved to 83-43 (.659) on the road since 2000. … Houston was limited to just seven first downs, which were the fewest allowed by the Patriots since they allowed five in a win over Green Bay in 2006. … Bill Belichick won his 11th game for 13th time in his career, which ties him with Don Shula for the most 11-win seasons ever by a head coach. … Brady surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for the eighth time in his career and fifth consecutive year. … Gronkowski notched his 10th touchdown, marking the fifth time he's done that in his career. That's the most 10-plus touchdown seasons for a tight end in history. … Akiem Hicks recorded the first two-sack game of his career.

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