HOUSTON -- The Patriots rightfully celebrated the return from injury of tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday night, but it was the New England defense that left the most lasting, unforgettable impression.
The Patriots' defensive front bludgeoned Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer throughout and helped New England clinch a seventh consecutive playoff berth with a 27-6 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.
Gronkowski set up the first touchdown in the first quarter and recorded the second late in the second quarter to provide the Patriots (11-2) with what proved to be an insurmountable 11-point lead at the break.
The cushion was comfortable thanks to the New England defense, which harassed Hoyer relentlessly as the Patriots snapped a brief two-game skid.
"These guys did a good job, they really did," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of his defense. "We played a lot of different people as we've been doing on the front. Our linebackers did their job, they did coverage. We gave up three big plays, but on a down-in, down-out basis, I thought we competed well, tackled pretty well and we were able to get off the field on third down."
The Patriots regained possession of the top seed in the AFC standings after the Cincinnati Bengals (10-3) and Denver Broncos (10-3) lost earlier Sunday.
The Texans (6-7) amassed 17 yards on 17 plays in the third quarter, with Patriots ends Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard recording sacks of Hoyer that totaled 31 yards.
After the Patriots produced just a 49-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal in the third quarter, New England stretched their lead to three touchdowns early in the fourth following yet another sack of Hoyer.
With the Texans pinned deep in their own territory, Sheard dropped Hoyer and forced a fumble that defensive tackle Malcom Brown recovered at the Texans 7. Three plays later, running back James White scored on a 2-yard run for a 27-6 lead with 12:04 left in the game.
"Couldn't move the ball on offense at all," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "Thought the defense did some good things, but not enough, and special teams, we didn't play very well."
The Patriots sacked Hoyer five times before knocking him out of the game midway through the fourth quarter. The Texans produced just 189 total yards and seven first downs, and they breached the red zone once.
Gronkowski finished with four receptions for 87 yards. Brady, sacked three times, completed 22 of 30 passes for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns passes. He was elated to have Gronkowski back in the fold.
"Offensive football is always trust and anticipation, and there's nobody that I trust more than Gronk," Brady said. "He's a great player, a great teammate. Blocking, pass protection, obviously the pass game -- short, intermediate, deep. Takes advantage of a good matchup. A great player."
Back after missing last week's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles with a right knee injury he sustained the previous week in a loss at Denver, Gronkowski made his presence felt early.
On the first snap of the Patriots' second possession, Gronkowski corralled a 45-yard pass from Brady, taking advantage of fallen Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus to provide New England a first down inside the Texans' 10-yard line. Three plays later, Brady found wide receiver Keshawn Martin for a 2-yard touchdown pass and 7-0 lead.
The Patriots took advantage of exceptional field position as the half closed, covering just 41 yards in eight plays to extend their lead to 17-6 with 14 seconds remaining in the half. Brady converted two third downs with passes to Martin and wide receiver Brandon LaFell, and Gronkowski capped the march with a 1-yard jump ball over Texans safety Quintin Demps.
For the Texans, the blow of their second consecutive loss was lessened by the Colts' loss at Jacksonville earlier Sunday. Next week Houston visits Indianapolis (6-7) with first place in the AFC South up for grabs.
"We control what we can control," Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said. "Now we need to work on controlling next Sunday. We've got to go back to work and try to control next Sunday."
NOTES: Patriots WR Keshawn Martin exacted a measure of revenge by scoring the first touchdown of the game, a 2-yard catch with 7:22 left in the first quarter. Martin spent three-plus season with the Texans but was traded to New England on Sept. 17. For Martin, it was his second touchdown this season and third in his career. ... Texans DE J.J. Watt participated with a club cast after breaking his left hand in practice Wednesday and sitting out practice the remainder of the week. He had three tackles, one for a loss, and no sacks. ... Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount was taken to the locker room after sustaining a hip injury in the second quarter. He did not return. The Patriots finished the game with two healthy running backs: Brandon Bolden and James White.