Tom Brady made sure the New England Patriots got off to a fast start on Sunday night, and when the offense stalled after halftime the defense did the rest.
Brady threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns and the Patriots snapped a two-game skid and clinched a playoff berth with a 27-6 win over the Houston Texans.
Brady threw TD passes to Keshawn Martin and Rob Gronkowski in the first half to help New England build a 17-6 lead.
The Patriots didn't move the ball as well in the second half, but the defense harassed Brian Hoyer into multiple mistakes. Jabaal Sheard had strip sacks on Hoyer twice after halftime. The Patriots recovered the second one early in the fourth, and James White made it 27-6 with a 2-yard run three plays later.
Hoyer was sacked five times and left the game to be evaluated for a concussion with about 9 minutes remaining.
New England finished with six sacks after also taking down backup T.J. Yates after Hoyer was injured.
"The defense the last four or five weeks has been incredible," Brady said. "So it's good when they are on the field ... they just did a great job."
The Patriots (11-2) moved ahead of the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals in the race for the top AFC playoff seed and can clinch the AFC East with a win, or one loss or tie by the New York Jets. New England hasn't lost three straight games since 2002.
The Texans (6-7) recovered a fumble and forced two punts by the Patriots in the third quarter, but weren't able to take advantage of any of those opportunities and entered the fourth quarter trailing 20-6.
Coach Bill Belichick was impressed with the work of the front seven on his defense.
"Those guys did a good job; they really did," he said. "We played a lot of different people, as we have been doing in the front, and our linebackers did a good job."
Some things to know about the Patriots' win over the Texans.
HOYER'S HEALTH: Coach Bill O'Brien said he didn't have more details on Hoyer's injury after the game, but that it looked like he had a concussion. The injury is more concerning because he already missed a game this season after a concussion on Nov. 16. Hoyer was 11 of 22 for 155 yards.
If he can't go, the Texans will look to Yates, who started the last time Hoyer was out and led them to a win.
GRONKOWSKI'S RETURN: Gronkowski had four receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown in his return after missing last week's game with a knee injury. He said it was difficult to sit out last week, but that he wanted to make sure and not rush back too soon.
"You want to be out there playing football and making plays and at the same time you just have to be smart about it, which we were," he said. "The organization, myself just rehabbing really hard and everything checked out, everything felt good, so I was good to go."
STILL IN IT: Despite losing two in a row the Texans remain tied with the Colts for first place in the AFC South. They have a big game next week when they travel to Indianapolis, where they are 0-13.
"It's something we know," J.J. Watt said. "It's part of our history. It's something we need to change."
NEW ENGLAND'S SUCCESS: The Patriots have clinched a playoff spot for the 17th time in the 22 years that Robert Kraft has owned the team. They lead the NFL in postseason appearances in that span. It's the seventh straight season they've qualified for the playoffs and the sixth year in a row that they've won at least 11 games. They've been particularly good in the month of December, where they're 53-9 since 2001, which is the NFL's best record in that span.
WATT'S HAND: Watt played despite breaking his left hand in practice on Wednesday. The star defensive end wore a cast that enclosed his fingers in a club-like ball.
"It poses some problems, but it wasn't that bad," Watt said. "There were times where it was painful, but that's football, you know? People play with pain all the time."