Rob Gronkowski returned to the lineup and the Patriots (11-2) returned to winning ways Sunday night with a 27-6 victory over the Texans in Houston.
The victory helped New England clinch a playoff spot for the seventh straight season and avoided the team's first three-game losing streak since 2002.
Houston (6-7) lost its second in a row, failing to prove itself a worthy playoff contender in a game many Texans were using as a type of measuring stick against the defending Super Bowl Champions.
New England wasn't exactly back to a full go on offense – still failing to reach the 30-point performances that were a staple in September and had a good-but-not-great 312 yards of total offense – but it was more than good enough against a Brian Hoyer-led Texans team that punted seven times and was only able to muster a pair of field goals with just a single trip into the red zone on the night.
The Patriots did convert a respectable seven of 16 (44 percent) third downs against the NFL's No. 1 third down defense that had been allowing just 28 percent on the season.
Brady was still sacked three times, the third straight week and fourth time in five games that he's been sacked three or more times, but he was able to get back to a more efficient completion rate. He led a pair of first-half touchdown drives along with a field goal for the 17-6 lead at halftime and added another score and field goal after the break to close out a solid, impressive road victory.
Unfortunately a part of the story yet again, even with the positive vibe from Gronkowski's return, was New England losing players to injury. After an impressive start to the night with 10 carries for 53 yards in the first half, LeGarrette Blount limped off with a hip injury. Later, Devin McCourty limped off with an ankle issue, while Dominique Easley had a thigh issue after an impressive early sack.
On a day when injuries hit across the league to varying levels – the Bengals lost Andy Dalton – the Patriots took their share.
But they took the health lumps in victory and in taking over the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture.
Bill O'Brien's "Patriots South" squad never really had a chance to pull off the upset. The familiarity that the coaching staff – including George Godsey, Romeo Crennel, Mike Vrabel and others – and a roster with former Patriots Hoyer and Vince Wilfork brought to the mix never turned into the trap-game upset recipe that some had fearfully expected.
"Really proud of our team this week. It was a tough week. I thought they competed hard all week in terms of preparation on the practice field," Belichick said. "We played a solid game here tonight in all three phases. We competed for 60 minutes, which is what we needed to do.
"Good to come down here and come out with a win. I thought we had a lot of guys step up. That's what we need as a team, everyone needs to contribute."
Gronk was back. But guys like Jerod Mayo, Akiem Hicks, Brandon Bolden and so many others also put forth key performances. The depth is being tested and on this night the depth answered the call.
Now it's on Tennessee and finishing the regular season out in the coming weeks on the way toward the postseason.
"Each one gets bigger," Belichick said.
Before moving on to the Titans, here's a look at some of the highs and lows from New England's return to the win column, and the playoffs, with the win in Houston:
Rob Gronkowski –Despite seemingly being on a snap count that limited him to a little more than half the plays, the All-Pro tight end was back to once again transform the Patriots passing attack. Gronkowksi had a 45-yard catch to set up New England's first score and then notched a 1-yard touchdown. Gronkowski finished with four catches for 87 yards and the score. He brought production, confidence and a vibe to the offense as he always does. It ended in victory, as it almost always does when Gronkowksi is in the mix for the Patriots.
Logan Ryan/Leonard Johnson – Ryan had arguably his best game of the season, playing a key role in taking Houston playmaking receiver DeAndre "Nuk" Hopkins out the game. Hopkins finished with just three catches for 52 yards, the bulk coming on one 40 yarder. "Logan did a good job battling him," Belichick said. Johnson made his New England debut and came in making plays. He had a pair of passes defensed and celebrated each with a fun dance. From the street to playmaking and celebration dances is impressive.
Tom Brady –Brady has been down a bit in recent weeks – injuries and too many QB hits had him completing less than 55 percent of his passes for three straight games – but he got back to solid work with Gronkowksi back in the lineup. No. 12 completed 22 of 30 passes (73 percent) for 226 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions for a 116.8 passer rating. He also had 13-yard scramble late.
Jabaal Sheard –The veteran took over in the second half, beating blocks and taking advantage when he wasn't blocked. Sheard had a pair of sacks totaling 34 yards in losses, a pair of forced fumbles and led the front that battered Hoyer. Sheard now has six sacks on the year as a valuable, versatile, productive member of the defensive front.
Tre' Jackson –Though the group did a good job of keeping a one-handed J.J. Watt in check, the line still had plenty of issues across the board at various times. Jackson was worst of the group. He was pushed around by Vince Wilfork a couple times. He also earned a pair of holding calls. Jackson wasn't at his best replacing an injured Josh Kline and fell in line with a group that's struggled more often than not in recent weeks, this against a solid Texans front.
Keshawn Martin/Special teams – The veteran returner had been having a solid game…right up until he muffed a third-quarter punt for a turnover. The Patriots have now had terrible mistakes in three straight weeks in the kicking game, including muffed punts by Chris Harper (Denver) and now Martin. Danny Amendola handled the punt returns later, but it's clear the team would rather not use the banged up receiver in that role if it's not necessary. Apparently, though, it is.
Injuries – The NFL is a battle of attrition. That's trite and it's true. Players have been dropping like flies all season and did once again on Sunday. While the Bengals lost their starting quarterback, New England lost key contributors like LeGarrette Blount (hip) and Devin McCourty (ankle), as well as a depth guy in Jonathan Freeny. The injury list is getting longer each week.
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