FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots might advance to the Super Bowl for the second straight season — and sixth time since 2001 — but their postseason journey from this point forward will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski.
One of the game’s best tight ends, Gronkowski reinjured the left forearm he broke Nov. 18, and will need additional surgery, according to a league source. He was injured on the Patriots’ second offensive series of Sunday’s 41-28 win over Houston, when he caught a deep ball thrown by Tom Brady. Gronkowski was out of bounds and the pass was ruled incomplete, but Gronkowski braced his fall with his left arm, which was heavily bandaged.
The team announced during the game that his return was questionable. Before the game was over, word had surfaced that Gronkowski’s season was over.
“It’s hard to replace a player like him, because he’s a freak of nature,” said tight end Aaron Hernandez, who caught six passes for 85 yards. “But everyone has to step up and everyone still has to keep making plays so we can keep going.”
Gronkowski missed five games after initially breaking his forearm while blocking on an extra-point attempt against the Colts. He returned for the season finale against Miami and was used in a limited role, catching two passes, including one for a touchdown. But it was obvious that Gronkowski was still favoring the arm, and had a similar heavy white bandage from wrist to elbow for Sunday’s game.
“I said a really long prayer for that dude,” cornerback Aqib Talib said. “He worked hard to get back. It’s tough, man, it’s tough. It’s big losing Rob, but they played without him before.”
Two other starters also left the game with injuries; unlike Gronkowski, their availability for Sunday’s AFC Championship game against Baltimore is unknown. Danny Woodhead injured his left thumb on the team’s first offensive play, when he took a handoff from Brady and was quickly wrapped up for no gain. He immediately left the game, was taken to the locker room, but returned to the sideline and was catching passes from Ryan Mallett. Woodhead, though, did not return.
Nor did defensive end Chandler Jones, who left with an ankle injury. He was part of the goal-line pileup on Arian Foster’s 1-yard touchdown run late in the first half. Jones missed two games earlier this season with an ankle injury.
Far from special
One area of concern coming from the game, aside from the injuries, was the Patriots’ special teams performance when they kicked off to the Texans, beginning with the opening boot by Stephen Gostkowski.
Danieal Manning had three long returns, including a 94-yarder on the opening kickoff that set up the Texans at the Patriots’ 12. Houston failed to punch it in for a touchdown, but the long return was followed by two more.
Manning had a 35-yard return late in the second quarter, and 15 more yards were tacked on when Gostkowski was penalized for a horse-collar tackle. Houston took advantage of the short field and scored its first touchdown, cutting the Patriots’ lead to 17-10.
A third long kickoff return, this one for 69 yards by Manning, led to the Texans’ second touchdown drive. By then, though, it cut the Patriots’ lead to 38-20.
For the game, Manning had four returns for 216 yards.
“I guess we’ve got to go look at it on tape and see what was happening, but it’s disappointing,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “The defense bailed us out, the offense bailed us out, but if we keep playing like that, we’re not going to be playing a lot more football. We can’t give the opposing team field position like that, so we’ve got to just go look at the tape, see what was happening, see what our breakdowns were, and try to get it fixed.”
Like the Patriots during wild-card weekend, the Ravens were glued to Sunday’s game, to see who their opponent would be in the AFC Championship game, and which city they’d be visiting.
Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, if his Twitter messages from Sunday are any indication, isn’t impressed with the Patriots.
“New England does some suspect stuff on offense. Can’t really respect it. Comparable to a cheap shot b4 a fight.”
“Are you watching the game Pats vs. Texans? If so you see the hurry snap offense catch em b4 they set up. It’s a gimmick.”
“You know the same organization that did spygate and cut a guy the day b4 the Super Bowl.”
Have a seat
With a roster that came into the game relatively intact — only five players were on Friday’s injury report, and all five were probable to face the Texans — the Patriots’ mandatory seven inactives would really be viewed as healthy scratches.
There were no surprises. The inactives were receiver Kamar Aiken, defensive end Jake Bequette, tight end Daniel Fells, defensive backs Derrick Martin and Malcolm Williams, and offensive linemen Nick McDonald and Markus Zusevics. Of the seven, only McDonald, who missed two of the last four regular-season games with a shoulder injury, was on the injury report.
Multiple reporters saw Texans defensive end J.J. Watt spit on the Patriots logo at midfield during pregame warm-ups, and after the game Watt confirmed it — and that it’s part of his routine. “I do that every game, home or away. I go out to midfield, I jog out there, I spit a little bit, wipe my feet off, and then I go through my stretch,” he said. “No drama there. That’s 100 percent what I do every game, home or away.” . . . The special teams play wasn’t all bad for the Patriots. Punter Zoltan Mesko had one of his best games, with five punts for a 52.8-yard average. Included were two that went at least 60 yards: a 61-yarder early in the first quarter on his first punt of the game, and a 64-yarder early in the fourth quarter that received a handful of generous bounces before being downed . . . Tackle Nate Solder, a second-year Patriot who will be playing in his second AFC Championship game: “I guess I just assume it happens every year. But I know that’s not the case, so I feel honored and blessed to be here.” . . . Fourteen members of the Newtown, Conn., police department, including first responders at the Sandy Hook shooting last month, were honored before the game . . . The Patriots kept the Newtown decals on their helmets, and added another with the initials “DSB,” in memory of longtime equipment manager Donald Brocher, who died Jan. 1. Brocher was honored in a pregame moment of silence.Shalise Manza Young of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.