HOUSTON — Rob Gronkowski is always the big story. And Sunday night in Texas, where everything is big, was no exception.
The Patriots' larger-than-life tight end returned to action after a one-game absence and, as usual, had a big impact in a 27-6 win over the Texans.
Gronkowski started the game, though he retreated to the bench for the rest of the first series, a three-and-out. However, he looked more like the Gronkowski New England knows and loves on the next possession.
On first and 10 from the Patriots 48, Gronkowski went deep. Tom Brady, who had spun out of the pocket to his right to buy time, spotted his big man and fired all the way across the field. Gronkowski hauled it in and steamrolled his way to the 7-yard line for a 45-yard gain.
Everyone knew before the game that Gronkowski had returned. But this proved Gronk was back.
Forget all those theories that Gronkowski made the trip to Houston to be some kind of decoy. The 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pounder was here to play. He played 36 snaps total.
"Oh yeah!,'' said an excited Gronkowski, when asked to describe that play. "I was running that route and it was taking a while and I couldn't even see Tom — I didn't know where he was. The next thing you know, I see the ball going flying up in the air coming to me. And then, I couldn't see the ball anymore in that stadium. It went right into the lights. And I was like, 'I know it's coming to me.' And then when it was like 20 feet from me coming down I said, 'there it is' and I just had to make that catch.''
He made it, and four plays later Brady hit Keshawn Martin with a 2-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead the Patriots would never relinquish.
Gronkowski was on the field for the majority of plays in the first half and capped it with 1-yard touchdown catch. Lined up opposite strong safety Quintin Demps, he jumped off the line of scrimmage, shed Demps, and leaped high as he snagged Brady's pass before falling backward in the end zone to give New England a 17-6 lead.
He popped up and did his signature celebration: A big Gronk spike.
"I just had to make a little move,'' said Gronkowski, who had a "Sunday Night Football Player of the Game" game ball stashed in his locker. "The DB played good defense and Tom put it up there where I just had to go up and make a play and I did, so good execution overall . . . It's always good to make a play, get a touchdown, but the icing on the cake is the win.''
Said Brady of having one of his most reliable targets back: "There's nobody I trust more than Gronk."
Gronkowski, who coincidentally enough was wearing some sharp red Nikes on what the Texans had dubbed "Battle Red Day'' for the red jerseys they wore, finished with four receptions on four targets for a game-high 87 receiving yards.
Gronkowski, who suffered a mild knee sprain and bone bruise late in the Denver loss, said his knee felt "good . . . good to go'' after the game.
He said it was just a matter of going through a process and not rushing back.
"Just making sure everything checked out during the week and everything did,'' said Gronkowski, who returned to practice Thursday. "There was urgency and there wasn't urgency. The urgency was I just wanted to be back out there with my teammates and be back out there playing football. It's hard to watch. You want to be out there making plays. But you also have to be smart about it, which we were, as an organization and myself. I just rehabbed really hard and everything checked out, so I was good to go.''
Gronkowski deflected any talk about the Denver game and whether he thought he would play again this season after being hurt.
"Aww, we're in Houston now,'' he said. "I just want to talk about this game.''
Gronkowski said you can't get too hung up on how defenders are attacking or how they try to bring you down. You just have to keep playing.
"I'm just running with the ball, sometimes I don't even notice how I get tackled,'' he said. "How quick the game is, how quick a move is, how quick a tackle is, sometimes you don't know how you got tackled. You try to avoid [the dangerous hits] as much as possible.''
Gronkowski, who on Sunday became the first tight end in history with five seasons with at least 10 touchdown catches and also eclipsed 1,000 yards for the third time, said the only number that mattered was the one in the win column.
"It was just satisfying to come here and get that win,'' he said of snapping a two-game skid. "That's what's important to this team. I mean it's cool that we clinched a spot and all but we still got a couple more games to go and that's what we're focused on.''