Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

HOUSTON -- Some thoughts on the New England Patriots' 34-31 win over the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium:

What it means: This wasn't the Patriots' best effort. After two prime-time games against top teams, they played down to the level of their competition against the two-win Texans in a natural letdown-type situation. They'll take the win after making the plays in critical situations, but they know they'll need to play better in the weeks to come. The Patriots improve to 9-3 and keep pace in the overall AFC playoff race, while the Texans drop to 2-10.

Gostkowski's clutch kicks a big part of the story: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit two field goals from 53 yards in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots probably don't win the game if not for his powerful and accurate right leg. It's been eight years since the Patriots had Mr. Clutch, Adam Vinatieri. In terms of clutch performances, this was one of Gostkowski's best.

Monster game from Gronkowski: Not that it's a newsflash, but the presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski simply changes everything for the Patriots' offense. It's no coincidence that as Gronkowski has rounded into form, the offense has done much of the same. He had six catches for 127 yards and looks like his old self.

Run defense gashed: One of the big issues for the Patriots was run defense. They struggled to get off blocks and tackle -- mostly fundamental-type stuff. This has been a struggle at times for the team, and other times they've been solid (versus Carolina, minus QB scrambles). When it comes to top areas to address in the weeks to come, this one is high on the list.

Stock watch: Lead running back Stevan Ridley, who lost fumbles in each of the past three games, was a healthy scratch. This puts his future as the team's top option at the position at a crossroads (analysis here). Shane Vereen played the majority of running back snaps for the Patriots in the game.

Edelman cashes in: By making his 70th reception of the season, receiver Julian Edelman earns the maximum $250,000 incentive bonus in his one-year contract. Edelman has been terrific this season.

Injuries to monitor: Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, who started in place of the injured Aaron Dobson, left the game in the first half with a hip injury. He returned for three plays before shutting it down for the day. There were no other notable injuries.

What's next: The Patriots return home to host the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 8 (1 p.m. ET).