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Patriots 27, Texans 6

Patriots return to form, clinch playoff spot

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski eluded Texans safety Andre Hal during the second half.George Bridges/Associated Press

HOUSTON — It had been 21 days since the Patriots last won, a three-week funk that saw key players lost to injury, dreams of a perfect season ruined, and three seldom-used words — wild-card weekend — brought into the conversation.

Order, seemingly restored.

Rob Gronkowski returned from injury and caught a touchdown pass in Sunday night’s 27-6 win over the Texans before a record crowd at NRG Stadium. The victory clinched a playoff spot for the Patriots for the seventh straight season, and ended a two-game losing streak. Coupled with losses by the Bengals and Broncos, it also pushed the Patriots back to the top of the AFC standings.

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Three regular-season games remain, but if the postseason began now, the Patriots (11-2) would be the No. 1 seed, with home-field advantage throughout.

“We’ve had a tough couple weeks, but this team’s got a lot of character, and persevered through some adversity. We beat a good football team in a good environment,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “We needed it, for a number of reasons. I think it does a lot for your team’s confidence to get back in the win column. And we realize we’re playing for a lot. It was important that we came and got ourselves a win.”

Unlike the losses to Denver and Philadelphia, this one lacked any fourth-quarter drama, which was just fine with the Patriots. They never trailed, scoring a touchdown right before halftime to take a 17-6 lead, and keeping the Texans, defensive end J.J. Watt, and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins frustrated for much of the night.

Gronkowski, who had missed the Eagles game after suffering a knee injury on Nov. 29 at Denver, picked up right where he left off. His 1-yard TD catch from Tom Brady with 14 seconds left in the second quarter capped a perfectly executed two-minute drive, giving the Patriots a two-possession lead. Gronkowski didn’t play as many snaps as he’s accustomed — 36 — but he finished with four catches for a team-high 87 yards. The touchdown was his 10th, giving him five of those seasons in his six-year NFL career.

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The Patriots added another field goal on the first possession of the third quarter, pushing the lead to 20-6. A 2-yard touchdown run by James White early in the fourth quarter was set up after Jabaal Sheard sacked Brian Hoyer and forced a fumble, which was recovered by Malcom Brown.

Sheard had a pair of second-half sacks and forced two fumbles, and fellow defensive lineman Akiem Hicks also had two sacks after halftime. The Patriots sacked the Houston quarterbacks six times, the most since they had eight in a Week 2 win at Buffalo.

“As a defense, as a team, we wanted to come out and play some good football. Everybody had their motors going,” said Hicks. “[Sacks] are a great feeling, but I’ve got to give it to my defensive line.”

Much of the talk leading into the game was the reunion of sorts, with a number of former Patriots now employed by the Texans. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork held court with many of his former teammates before the game, then refused to speak to the media after it. Hoyer started his eighth game of the season, and left to be evaluated for a possible concussion. Head coach Bill O’Brien, offensive coordinator George Godsey, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, and defensive assistant Anthony Pleasant all spent time with the Patriots.

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It was a former Texan, though, who quietly made an impact, especially in the first half. Wide receiver Keshawn Martin was acquired by the Patriots in a Sept. 17 trade with the Texans. He had three strong punt returns (although a 13-yarder was brought back by penalty), including a 21-yarder in the first quarter that set up the Patriots at their 48-yard line.

They were in the end zone four plays later. The drive began with a 45-yard completion to Gronkowski, and after a touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell was nullified by an illegal formation penalty, Brady connected with Martin for a 2-yard score on third and goal. It was Martin’s second touchdown of the season.

Martin, who had three receptions for 23 yards, muffed a punt early in the third quarter, with the Patriots leading, 20-6, and the Texans taking over at the New England 21. But the Patriots held, forcing a turnover on downs.

“Fourth-down stop was good. Any time you can get off the field is a great thing,” said safety Leonard Johnson, who was signed by the Patriots on Wednesday, participated in three practices, then got the start in Sunday’s game. He made some plays, including breaking up the fourth-down pass, and showed some exuberance after making them. “Hats off to the defensive line, they were putting pressure on the quarterback all night, which made it easier on the back end.”

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LeGarrette Blount left the game in the second quarter with a hip injury, suffered during a 6-yard run. It was the final carry of the game for Blount, who had 53 yards on 10 attempts as the Patriots successfully established the run game, gaining 116 yards, with Brandon Bolden (16 carries, 51 yards) and White (four receptions for 38 yards, in addition to the 2-yard touchdown run) assuming larger roles.

“Your role increases a little bit,” White said. “[Blount] was playing a good game, he went down, so me and Brandon had to step up and try and help move the sticks for our team.”

Watt, who played with a club-like cast on his left hand after breaking it in practice, did not add to his league-leading sack total. Hopkins, who came in with five 100-yard games, caught only three passes for 52 yards, and that included a late 40-yarder, after the game’s outcome had been decided.

So the Patriots avoided their first three-game losing streak in 13 years. When the day began, they were unsure what they would get from Gronkowski, and they were behind the Bengals and Broncos in the conference standings.

Now they’re back in first, and guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, although that accomplishment apparently wasn’t significant enough to warrant a mention by anyone inside the locker room after the game.

“I didn’t know that. How about that?” Slater said. “We’re just so happy to win. I don’t even think that was mentioned by Coach [Bill Belichick] or anyone. It was just, ‘Hey, we’re playing the Houston Texans, and Bill O’Brien is going to have his team ready to go.’ That’s all we were thinking about.”

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Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.