Patriots clinch playoff berth with win over Texans

*The New England Patriots (11-2) clinched their seventh straight playoff berth and moved back into the AFC's top spot with a comprehensive 27-6 win over the Houston Texans (6-7) on Sunday night. The Patriots can clinch the AFC East with a Dolphins loss on Monday night. Here's what you need to know: *

  1. Brian Hoyer looked flummoxed all evening, thanks to the Patriots' swarming defensive line. New England collected six sacks of Hoyer who sat like a deer in the headlights behind his offensive line. Jabaal Sheard dominated Texans right tackle Derek Newton to the tune of two sacks and two forced fumbles, while Akiem Hicks tallied two sacks of his own. Despite the in-game losses of Dominique Easley (thigh) and Jonathan Freeny (hand), the Patriots' front seven picked up steam as the game wore on and the deficit grew larger.
  1. This week in large, loud football players heroically returning from injuries: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski -- who just two weeks ago on Sunday night suffered what looked like a season-ending knee injury -- was listed as active following a week of speculation. Of course, he put up massive numbers per usual -- four catches, 86 yards, TD -- and made his presence felt on New England's second drive with a cross-field 45-yard reception.

On the other side of the ball, J.J. Watt returned from his broken hand, sporting a club on his left arm. However, the Texans star defensive end had a quiet night, totaling just three total tackles and one for loss.

  1. Has anyone seen Nuk? Houston's go-to wideout DeAndre Hopkins went missing Sunday night, finishing with just three catches on six targets for 52 yards, 40 of which came on one garbage-time play. Hoyer tried to spread the ball around to other playmakers -- Nate Washington had one impressive 49-yard grab early -- but without Hopkins in the mix, Houston's offense stalled in the second half. Credit Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan with shutting down the Texans' main man.
  1. One light at the end of that dark tunnel in Houston was the emergence of Jadeveon Clowney. With Watt taking numerous double teams, the Texans' second-year defensive end posted seven total tackles and two sacks in what was certainly his most dominant game as a pro.
  1. Another week, another traffic jam around the Patriots' X-ray machine. In a season full of setbacks, New England continued to lose bodies on Sunday night, most notably Devin McCourty (ankle) and LeGarrette Blount (hip). As always, the Pats' backup backs picked up the slack -- Brandon Bolden and James White combined for 91 total yards and a touchdown.

On Houston's sideline, Hoyer left in the fourth quarter to undergo concussion protocol after taking his fifth sack of the evening. The Texans' quarterback position continues to be a revolving door of horror.

  1. In losing Sunday night, the Texans blew another major opportunity to take hold of the AFC South -- the Colts fell to 6-7 after getting blown out by the Jaguars, 51-16, earlier on Sunday. With Andrew Luck returning in Indianapolis soon, this was likely the Texans' last chance to create some breathing room between them and the Colts before their crucial Week 15 matchup.
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