FOXBOROUGH — The New England Patriots didn’t need Rob Gronkowski when they dominated the Houston Texans last month.
Now he’s back.
And that gives the Texans, 42-14 losers on Dec. 10, a tougher challenge in Sunday’s rematch in a divisional playoff game.
“Obviously, he’s a great player,” Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker said Thursday. “So any time you can throw him in there, it’s a good thing.”
It’s even better when Gronkowski is out there with their other star tight end, Aaron Hernandez.
But they played together in just five games this season. Hernandez missed six of the first 10 with a sprained right ankle. Then Gronkowski sat out the next five with a broken left forearm before returning for limited action in the regular-season finale, a 28-0 win over the Miami Dolphins in which he caught just two passes, one for a 23-yard touchdown.
In their previous two NFL regular seasons, Gronkowski played in all 32 games, Hernandez in 28. They combined for 87 catches in 2010 and 169 in 2011. They were productive when healthy this season with Gronkowski catching 55 passes with 11 touchdowns and Hernandez grabbing 51 with five scores.
“Two’s always better than one,” special teams captain and wide receiver Matthew Slater said.
But to Tom Brady, just having them on the field doesn’t mean anything. They need to produce.
“It’s a matter of execution more than anything,” the Patriots quarterback said. “Just because (Gronkowski) may have the opportunity to be out there on a particular play doesn’t matter if we don’t execute it well.”
Gronkowski was protecting his left arm when he faced Miami, trying to keep it away from contact. The importance of his health was evident last year when his playing status was listed as questionable for the Super Bowl just 48 hours before the game.