Rob Gronkowski returned to the field on Sunday night, a development that helped enable the New England Patriots get back to their winning ways.

The tight end scored his 10th touchdown of the season in the first half and finished with a team-high 87 receiving yards as the visitors cruised to a 27-6 victory over the Houston Texans. The Patriots also were the first team to clinch a playoff spot in the AFC after putting an end to their two-game losing streak.

Keshawn Martin and James White scored touchdowns for New England (11-2), which catapulted back to the top of the AFC standings with the win. Tom Brady continued his MVP campaign with another workmanlike performance as well, completing 22-of-30 passes and connecting with Gronkowski and Martin for a pair of touchdowns.

The Texans (6-7) kept the game close for much of the first half, limiting New England’s offense to just 10 points for the first 29 minutes of the contest until Brady found Gronkowski in the end zone just before half to build a 17-6 lead. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and starting quarterback Brian Hoyer could not get anything going offensively in the second half against their former employers, turning what was a tight contest into a blowout by the closing stages of the fourth quarter.

 

Three things we learned:

 

1. Gronkowski’s return breathes life into Patriots offense

The superstar tight end was not 100 percent against Houston after missing a week of action following an ugly bone bruise on his knee against the Denver Broncos in Week 13. Still, Gronkowski’s presence back on the field changed the complexion of the game on Sunday and the team’s outlook moving forward. The 26-year-old was not overly featured in his return, receiving just four targets from Brady in the win. However, Gronkowski caught all four of those balls and wreaked havoc on a pair of them, including a 45-yard gain in the first quarter. His blocking ability was a boost in New England establishing the run game as well, with the visitors gaining 116 yards on the ground despite losing LeGarrette Blount to a hip injury in the first half. All in all, Gronkowski’s positive play after injury was the most encouraging development of the evening and a tremendous boost to the Pats’ Super Bowl chances.

 

2. Patriots’ defense rises to the challenge

Gronkowski’s return may get most of the headlines following the win, but the biggest factor in New England’s victory was the play of the defense. The Texans’ offense was a disaster for the better part of the evening, thanks to an imposing pass rush by the defensive line. Jabaal Sheard led the way for that group with a pair of sacks and two forced fumbles on crucial third down passing situations in the second half, one of which led to a fumble recovery for New England in the red zone. The Patriots finished with six sacks on the night and held Houston to just 189 net yards and seven first downs in the dominating performance. In the secondary, All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins was contained as well to just three receptions, as Hoyer was limited to completing just 12 of his 24 pass attempts for a meager 155 yards before being forced to leave the game with a possible concussion.

 

3. New England is back in driver’s seat in AFC

After consecutive losses in a top-heavy AFC in the past two weeks the Patriots were staring at the real possibility of playing on Wild Card Weekend prior to Sunday’s contest. However, the Raiders and Steelers did the defending champions a big favor by taking down the Broncos and Bengals respectively during Week 14. Those losses combined with New England’s win put the Patriots back in sole possession of the No. 1 seed in the AFC with just three games remaining. Both Denver and Cincinnati have 10-3 records and will face each other in Week 16, guaranteeing one of them will finish with at least four losses. That means New England will just need to win two of their final three games in order to guarantee a top-two seed and a first round bye in the postseason. With Gronkowski back in the lineup, along with a fairly easy finishing slate (vs. Titans, at Jets, at Dolphins) remaining, the odds of the Patriots getting some extra rest before their quest to repeat begins looks better than ever.