FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- What a difference a week -- and a Gronk -- make.
One week ago the New England Patriots and their fans were waking up from a debacle of a loss in Foxborough.
In what might be the upset of the year at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles -- including a blocked punt return for a score, a punt return touchdown and a 99-yard interception return score -- New England lost its second straight game and fell, for the time, into the No. 3 seed slot in the fast-approaching AFC playoffs.
Now, following Sunday night's efficient 27-6 win over the Texans (6-7) in Houston, the Patriots (11-2) are back in the driver's seat toward the No. 1 seed.
With the Cincinnati Bengals losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers and losing quarterback Andy Dalton to injury, and the Denver Broncos falling to the Oakland Raiders, the Patriots head toward the final three weeks (vs. Titans, at Jets, at Dolphins) knowing that winning out would mean the road to Super Bowl 50 once again rolls through Foxborough.
New England avoided its first three-game losing streak since 2002 thanks, at least in part, to the return of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
It's not a stretch to make a connection to the fact that after the pass catcher was carted off with a right knee injury in Denver, the Patriots fell to the Broncos in overtime and lost to the Eagles with Gronkowski sidelined.
His return in Houston included a 45-yard catch on the first play of New England's second possession of the night, on the way to the game's opening score.
Gronkowski added three more catches, totaling 87 yards for the night, including a one-yard score.
But his contributions show up far more than simply in the stats. It's the blocking presence he offers both in pass protection and the running game.
It's the focus he gets from the defense that allows others far more freedom in the passing game.
It's the obvious comfort and confidence he brings to the entire team, most notably quarterback Tom Brady, who looked more like himself while completing 73 percent of his throws rather than the sub-55 percent he put up the last two weeks.
"I feel good and it was great to be back out there," Gronkowski told reporters. "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."
His quarterback wasn't exactly gushing after the game, but Brady's performance and the outcome said as much as anything.
"He is just a huge influence on what we do offensively and he really toughed it out, so I am proud of him," Brady said
And the results speak for themselves.
"It turned out good," Gronkowski said of his knee and his return. "It was great to be back out there."
Gronkowski is back on the field. New England is back in the win column. And the Patriots have returned to the perch atop the AFC playoff seeding picture that's still coming into focus with New Year's Day seemingly right around the corner.
All's right in Patriots Nation, this a mere week after the sky seemingly was falling.
REPORT CARD vs. TEXANS
--PASSING OFENSE: B. Tight end Rob Gronkowksi got back on the field and Tom Brady got back to looking more like himself than had been the case in a recent few weeks of struggles. Brady completed 22-of--33 passes (73 percent) for 226 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 116.8 passer rating that was his highest since Oct. 29 against the Dolphins. The 73 percent completions was his highest rate since Week 4 in Dallas. Gronkowksi led the New England receivers with 87 yards on his four catches on four targets, including a 45- yarder to set up a touchdown, and his own short scoring catch late in the second quarter. Danny Amendola is not 100 percent, but he hauled in a game-high six catches for 46 yards. Brady was sacked three times and the offensive line continued to have various struggles.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: B. New England churned out 31 carries, its third-highest total of the season and the most in more than a month. The result was an unspectacular 116 yards and a 3.7-yard average. LeGarrett Blount was workmanlike in the first half, as the Patriots balanced out the offense with 15 carries compared to 20 passes. Blount had 10 of those carries for 53 yards (5.3), with a 17-yard long before leaving for the night with a hip injury. Brandon Bolden had five rushes for 22 yards in the first half, then handled the clock-running duties in the second half to finish the game with 16 carries for 51 yards, while James White notched two-yard touchdown on his only carry of the night.
--PASS DEFENSE: B-plus. New England doesn't get a ton of respect or beauty points here, but the unit continues to chug along and do its job. Sunday night that included trying to take away the Texans biggest threat -- DeAndre Hopkins. Aside from a late 40-yard catch with the game already decided, Logan Ryan did that by holding the man nicknamed "Nuk" to three catches for 52 yards. Houston starter Brian Hoyer completed 11-of-22 passes for 155 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a 73.1 rating. He was sacked five times and left with a concussion after fumbling on a vicious toss to the turf by defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.
--RUN DEFENSE: B. The front wasn't completely dominant against the run, but it was solid. Houston tried to use three ball carriers and a handful of Wildcat looks, and aside from a 37-yard run from Jonathan Grimes never really got much going. The Texans totaled 22 carries for 87 yards and a 4.0-average, but that drops to a 2.5-yard average without the long run and a Hoyer kneel-down. Jamie Collins led the front with nine tackles in his second game back from illness, while Jerod Mayo had eight tackles in increased action, including seven solo stops.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: D. The kicking game was a presumed advantage dating to the beginning of last season. But in the last three weeks, the unit had major issues and was a negative factor. Keshawn Martin muffed a punt for a turnover in the third quarter at the Patriots 21. Punter Ryan Allen was solid with a 40.3-yard net on his six punts, including three inside the 20. Stephen Gostkowski hit his field goals from 43 and 49 yards.
COACHING: B. Bill Belichick got his team back to the basics last week in practice and, in many ways, in the Sunday night game plan. After two losses, New England focused on balance on offense and taking what the defense gave in the passing game. Defensively it was about tackling well, stopping the run and playing sound pass defense to avoid big plays. It all worked out well as New England stagnated Houston's most dangerous weapons -- DeAndre Hopkins on offense and J.J. Watt (playing with a broken hand) on defense. The rest of the Texans couldn't step up, while the Patriots complementary players took advantage of Rob Gronkowksi's return to put up a solid effort and performance against a playoff-contender on the road. It wasn't perfect or dominant, but it was back to simply winning. Just what Belichick asked of his team all last week in practice.