FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots had their way with the Houston Texans Dec. 10, a 42-14 prime-time rout at Gillette Stadium in which the home team threw for 296 yards, including four touchdown passes from Tom Brady.
The aerial show didn’t include tight end Rob Gronkowski, who sat out with a broken forearm, one of five games he missed with the injury.
Gronkowski is ready for the rematch, returning to the Patriots for the regular-season finale and playing 24 snaps to help him get back up to game speed. He caught two passes against the Dolphins, including a touchdown, his team-leading 11th on the season.
Now he’s getting ready for Sunday’s divisional playoff game, giving the Texans defense another big, talented target to worry about.
“I’m just learning up on them, studying up on them all week, and just listening to the coaches on what they have and how they’re preparing us,” Gronkowski said Tuesday. “I didn’t play in the game a month ago, and the game a month ago doesn’t mean anything. It’s the playoffs now and it’s the biggest game of the season for us. They’re going to be bringing it, coming back into our house.”
It’s the second straight postseason in which Gronkowski is dealing with an injury. A year ago, he was hurt in the AFC Championship game, and was limited in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Missing five games this season left the two-time Pro Bowler feeling down.
“Of course,” he said. “It’s football, you want to be out there. That’s my job, it’s what I like to do.
“It’s great being out there with your teammates, getting the chemistry back down, getting the speed of the game back, catching balls from Tom, blocking with the linemen, running routes with the receivers. It’s a lot of fun to be back.”
Receiver on call
Another Patriots receiver also missed the first game against the Texans. Deion Branch was watching on television with his wife at home (volume muted, he said). He wasn’t in uniform because he had been released by the Patriots Nov. 17, after suffering a hamstring injury.
A month ago, Gronkowski was out with an injury, and so was Julian Edelman. When Donte Stallworth – signed the week of the first Houston game — was injured against the Texans, the emergency call went to Branch. Not a surprise, since he has spent all or parts of seven seasons with the Patriots.
“This is what it’s all about now, the opportunity,” Branch said. “Just make sure I’m there for my team whenever my name is called. Just doing my job.”
Branch appeared in 10 games this season, catching 16 passes for 145 yards. They represent his lowest numbers in an NFL career that began with the Patriots in 2002, and this is the only season in which he failed to catch a regular-season touchdown pass.
It’s not a put-on
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork has won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots, is a five-time Pro Bowler, a four time All-Pro selection, and signed a five-year contract extension in March 2010 that is worth $40 million.
Those are strong indications that he made the proper career choice. But what would Wilfork be doing if he weren’t playing football?
“I would be throwing shot put somewhere — which I can do,” Wilfork said, breaking into a big smile.
Don’t laugh: Wilfork still holds the Florida high school state record, putting the shot 68 feet in 2000, when he was at Santaluces High School. Even now, he still occasionally dabbles in it.
“I actually have shot puts at my house,” Wilfork said. “I bought them a couple years ago, and last year I went out in the yard to see if I could throw it. I was OK.”
OK, as in 68 feet OK?
“No, I don’t have that in me anymore,” he said. “I threw 54 feet, but I felt some bones cracking.”
An order of juice
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich was showing no cause for concern Tuesday after limping off the field with a hip injury 10 days ago against the Dolphins. Ninkovich was running and taking part in agility drills during practice, with no limp or pain apparent. Not having a playoff game over the weekend, no doubt, came at a good time. “I think it was great to not only get the couple days to get healthy, but also to watch those games and see who we were going to play,” Ninkovich said. “Now it’s time to turn the juice on.” . . . Defensive lineman Justin Francis was the only player not spotted at Tuesday’s sweats-and-shells practice. Francis, a rookie coming off his best game (season-high three sacks), had an ankle injury early in the season but hadn’t missed a practice since Week 4. There was no reason given for his absence; the Patriots’ first injury report of the week isn’t due until Wednesday . . . The Patriots made a minor roster move Tuesday, signing receiver Andre Holmes to the practice squad. Holmes had two catches for 11 yards this season, appearing in seven games for the Cowboys. At 6 feet 4 inches, 223 pounds, Holmes’s size resembles another Andre, someone he may be pretending to be this week as a practice-squad member: Texans receiver Andre Johnson (6-3, 230), who caught 112 passes for 1,598 yards this season.