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Return of Rob Gronkowski, aggressive defense spark Patriots' victory

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Dilfer: Gronk's presence a major factor in Patriots' success (0:55)

Trent Dilfer breaks down the importance of TE Rob Gronkowski being on the field for the Patriots, saying "There's six eyes on Gronk on every play. That means there's six eyes that aren't on somebody else." (0:55)

HOUSTON -- Welcome back, Rob Gronkowski.

If there was any question as to the impact that Gronkowski has on the New England Patriots’ offense, it was answered in a big way in Sunday night’s 27-6 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.

Gronkowski was active for the game, in something of a surprise, and while he didn’t play his usual full load of snaps because of his right knee injury, his presence made a big difference. His 45-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter set up the team’s first touchdown, and his 1-yard touchdown grab late in the second quarter -- he was split out wide and reached up to haul it in -- was an example of why quarterback Tom Brady calls him “beast mode” at times.

"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.

That touchdown was the 10th of the season for Gronkowski, making him the first tight end in NFL history with five seasons of at least 10 touchdown receptions. He also topped 1,000 yards for the season, making him the first tight end in NFL history with three seasons of more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

In all, Gronkowski was charted on the field for 42 of 69 offensive snaps, including penalties. It wasn’t his usual play-every-snap type of game, but it didn’t have to be.

His presence changes everything for the Patriots’ offense.

What it means: On a day in which the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos both lost to drop to 10-3, the Patriots improved to 11-2, clinched a playoff berth and now sit atop the AFC with three games to play. Combine that with Gronkowski’s return to action, and this was close to as good of a day as the Patriots could have asked for in Week 14.

Defense delivers knockout: Can’t overlook the Patriots’ defensive performance, as they held the Texans off the scoreboard in the second half to pull away after leading 17-6 at the break. The defense really turned up the heat on battered quarterback Brian Hoyer, with defensive end Jabaal Sheard, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Leonard Johnson, and linebacker Jerod Mayo among the standouts. There was a lot of talk about how the Patriots would protect Brady against J.J. Watt & Co., but the Texans had more issues in that area.

Ouch: Top power running back LeGarrette Blount (left hip) and No. 3 linebacker Jonathan Freeny (hand) left the game in the second quarter and didn’t return. Safety Devin McCourty limped to the locker room in the third quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. Later in the third quarter, defensive tackle Domnique Easley had his left leg examined as he remained down on the field, and he did not return.

From the miscellaneous file: Brady topped 4,000 yards passing for the eighth time in his career and for the fifth straight season. … The Patriots did not rotate their offensive linemen, staying with the same five throughout, in a change from what has been standard operating procedure. The top five were left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, left guard Shaq Mason, center Bryan Stork, right guard Tre’ Jackson and right tackle Marcus Cannon. … Second-year man James White’s 27-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter was a career high.

Fantasy watch: Tight end Scott Chandler played only one snap, having entered the game with a knee injury. The lone time he was charted on the field was on Gronkowski's 1-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter.

What's next: The Patriots return home to entertain the Tennessee Titans next Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. The New York Jets routed the Titans in Week 14; Tennessee drops to 3-10 on the season.