HOUSTON -- New England coach Bill Belichick downplayed the return of Rob Gronkowski on Sunday night since he'd only been out for one game.
Tom Brady was far more effusive in his delight at having his tight end back.
Brady threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns and the Patriots snapped a two-game skid and clinched a playoff spot with a 27-6 win over the Houston Texans.
"He's a huge influence on what we do offensively," Brady said. "He really toughed it out so I'm proud of him. He had a big touchdown catch. He's obviously a big part of what we do so it was great to have him out there. ... Football is always trust and anticipation and there's nobody that I trust more than Gronk."
The Patriots (11-2) moved ahead of the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals in the race for the top AFC playoff seed and can clinch the AFC East with one win, or with one loss or tie by the New York Jets. New England hasn't lost three straight games since 2002.
Brady threw TD passes to Keshawn Martin and Gronkowski in the first half to help New England build a 17-6 lead. Gronkowski had four receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown in his return after missing last week's game with a knee injury.
"It's always good to make a play, get a touchdown," Gronkowski said. "The icing on the cake is that win."
The Patriots didn't move the ball as well in the second half, but the defense harassed Brian Hoyer into multiple mistakes. Jabaal Sheard had strip sacks on Hoyer twice after halftime. The Patriots recovered the second one early in the fourth, and James White made it 27-6 with a 2-yard run three plays later.
"I thought we had a lot of guys step up," Belichick said. "That's what we need. Everybody needs to contribute."
Hoyer was sacked five times and left the game to be evaluated for a concussion with about 9 minutes remaining. The quarterback already missed a game this season after getting a concussion on Nov. 16. Coach Bill O'Brien said he didn't have more details on Hoyer's injury, but that it looked like he had a concussion.
Hoyer was 11 of 22 for 155 yards.
The Texans (6-7) recovered a fumble and forced two punts by the Patriots in the third quarter, but weren't able to take advantage of any of those opportunities and entered the fourth quarter trailing 20-6. Houston remains tied for first place in the AFC South with the Colts, who the Texans face next week.
J.J. Watt played despite breaking his left hand in practice on Wednesday. He wore a cast that enclosed his fingers in a club-like ball.
"It poses some problems, but it wasn't that bad," Watt said. "There were times where it was painful, but that's football, you know? People play with pain all the time."
The Texans won two challenges on plays that were called receptions on New England's first drive of the second half, forcing the Patriots to kick a 49-yard field goal to make it 20-6.
"You can't start slow against a team like that at all or the results are going to be what happened tonight," Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins said.
Houston was forced to punt on its next possession, but Martin fumbled the return and the Texans recovered on the New England 21. But the Texans couldn't move the ball and turned it over after a failed fourth-down attempt.
The Texans were driving again later in the third when Hoyer fumbled and the Patriots recovered. Houston challenged the call and it was overturned, but he actually fumbled on the next play on a sack by Sheard. The Texans recovered but lost 10 yards on the play and had to punt again.
Gronkowski simply outjumped Quintin Demps to grab a 1-yard touchdown pass just before halftime to extend New England's lead to 17-6.
The Patriots took a 7-0 lead when former Texan Martin got away from rookie Kevin Johnson and was wide open in the end zone for a two-yard touchdown. That score was set up when Brady threw across his body and on the run to Gronkowski for a 45-yard gain earlier in the drive. Gronkowski was open after linebacker Whitney Mercilus fell trying to cover him.
The Texans cut the lead to 7-3 on a 37-yard field goal by Nick Novak in the first quarter.
New England got a 43-yard field goal early in the second quarter to make it 10-3.
Jonathan Grimes had a 37-yard run on Houston's next drive, but the offense stalled soon after that and the team settled for a 45-yard field goal to get within 10-6.
The Patriots have clinched a playoff spot for the 17th time in the 22 years that Robert Kraft has owned the team. ... Last year's top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney had two sacks for the first multiple sack game in his career with Houston. ... New England RB LeGarrette Blount injured his hip in the first half and didn't return.
ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon explains that perennial Pro Bowl tackle knows the wear and tear on his body; if he needs a day off in OTAs and during the season, Cleveland Browns are wise to give it to him.
DeSean Jackson has missed too many voluntary workouts to collect his $500,000 bonus, but Washington isn't concerned about his absences.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck tried his hand at auto racing on Wednesday, doing a few laps with former Indy 500 champion Mario Andretti.
Broncos offensive lineman Ty Sambrailo will get a shot at guard this season, but the coaches know he also has the ability to play tackle.
New York Jets DT Sheldon Richardson is keeping a positive attitude regarding his offseason workouts and possible discipline from the NFL.
ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini says that with Ryan Fitzpatrick still unsigned, Geno Smith led the first-team offense and looked sharp on Wednesday and Smith said he sees this as an opportunity.