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New England Patriots smash Texans, prove they're AFC's best

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HOUSTON -- It was the kind of day and night the New England Patriots' rivals have come to know and expect and dread.

For several weeks now, the Patriots have been quite a few notches below their ritual dominance. In the last two games, both losses, the injuries and unsightly special teams breakdowns had caught up with them. They arrived in Houston bruised and battered and unusually vulnerable, staring at the possibility of an exceedingly rare three-game losing streak and the daunting possibility that they might be no better than the third seed in the AFC when the playoffs begin.

But the Patriots have made a dynasty, in part, out of managing to hang in there even when the detritus is flying all around them. They dodge the really sharp pieces spinning their way. So while the AFC playoff order was reshaped around them on Sunday -- the Cincinnati Bengals suffered a particularly brutal blow with a loss and a fracture in Andy Dalton's throwing hand, and Denver couldn't overcome its suddenly somnolent offense -- the Patriots beat the Houston Texans, 27-6, with scorching play from their defensive front to right the order of their universe. With the win, and the losses by the Bengals and Broncos, the Patriots are back in the top seed spot in the AFC, a critical development for them not just because they are virtually unbeatable in the playoffs in Foxborough, but because they will need the first-round bye to allow their ever-lengthening injury list to heal.

They clinched a playoff spot for the 12th time in the last 13 years and so the rest of the AFC is brutally familiar with what is expected to come next. What once seemed so fragile now seems very nearly assured. Another relentless Patriots march through January in frigid Foxborough, another realization that the best team in the AFC is the same as it ever was. The Patriots' good fortune is such that the most dangerous team they could face in the AFC is the one that might not make the postseason at all: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This victory shouldn't assuage all the concerns about the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski's knee looked fine on his 45-yard catch and run, when linebacker Whitney Mercilus fell down while trying to cover him. Gronkowski helped the Patriots to that touchdown and then he leaped for another later in the game. Tom Brady was noticeably more comfortable and in rhythm than he had been in the last two weeks as a result.

"He's a huge influence on what we do offensively," Brady said. "Offensive football is all trust and anticipation. There's nobody I trust more than Gronk."

Danny Amendola, dealing with his own balky knee, jitterbugged through the defense. Brady was sacked three times and hit three others -- that's 11 sacks in the last four games -- although at least the pace of hits was well below what it had been. But the injuries continued to mount. Running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Jonathan Freeny, safety Devin McCourty and defensive tackle Dominique Easley all left the game and the severity of their injuries is unknown, although Easley was riding a stationary bike and Freeny was spotted with a cast on his right hand. It just reinforced what has been apparent in the last month: The biggest hurdle the Patriots face is not another team but their own doctor visits.

None of that stopped the Patriots from limiting the two people who might have caused them the most trouble, though: receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who had just three receptions for 52 yards, and pass rusher J.J. Watt, who had three tackles but no sacks and no hits on Brady (unless you count his roughing the passer penalty in the first quarter). And it did not stop the Patriots from doing what they usually do to inferior opponents -- crushing them by scoring at the end of the first half with a clinical drive and then scoring again to start the third quarter. That gave them a 10-point swing from which the offensively challenged Texans (seven first downs in all) could never recover.

"It was good complementary football on our part, something that has been lacking the last four weeks," Bill Belichick said. "That was a big 10-point swing for us."

And this was a very big two-seeding-spot swing for the Patriots. The Texans are left, still, in a first-place tie in the AFC South -- that division will likely be determined next Sunday when the Texans play the Colts -- but the reality is that whoever emerges from that game could merely be set up to be playoff cannon fodder for the Patriots in a few more weeks. This is how it goes in the AFC at this time of year. Even when the Patriots appear to be falling behind with injuries, they manage to at least stand in place while everybody around them falls down. While the AFC South hopes just to get to .500 and the Bengals and Broncos have to wonder about their quarterbacks, the Patriots heal and watch, cleaning up the details that had bedeviled them before.

"The fewer games there are, the more important they are," Belichick said. "Each one gets bigger."

Some teams shrink in comparison. While one gets ready for the biggest of the year to begin.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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