Patriots’ dynamic duo ready for rematch

Finally healthy, Gronkowski and Hernandez take aim at Texans

Despite missing five games this season with a broken forearm, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 55 passes with 11 touchdowns, including a 23-yard score in his return to the lineup in the season finale against Miami. Enlarge photo

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press file photo

Despite missing five games this season with a broken forearm, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 55 passes with 11 touchdowns, including a 23-yard score in his return to the lineup in the season finale against Miami.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass

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 today’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.

He had suffered a high-ankle sprain two weeks earlier in the Patriots’ 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game. That hampered him in the Super Bowl

He had just two catches for 26 yards after a season in which he had 105 receptions, 15 of them in the other two postseason games.

On the last play of the 21-17 loss to the New York Giants, Brady made one desperation heave for the championship, a long pass to the right side of the end zone on the last play. Hernandez and three Giants went up for the ball, Gronkowski lunged for it as it was heading for the ground, and it fell incomplete.

After the season, Gronkowski had arthroscopic surgery on the ankle. Then, he broke his forearm while blocking on an extra point in a 59-24 win over the Colts. He still may not be completely healthy, but Gronkowski is ready for whatever he’s asked to do.

“I’ll give the coaches a great look of what I can do (in practice) so they’re prepared for the game and what to call,” he said. “So whatever the coaches have in mind, I’ve just got to perform the best I can.”

The better he and Hernandez do that, the more coverage they’re likely to draw. And that would give wide receivers Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch more room to operate.

“The more weapons you have, the more guys have to pay attention to those guys,” Welker said. “Obviously, Aaron and Gronk are definitely guys you have to pay attention to.”

The double threat they pose, though, is no guarantee of success. In their five games together, the Patriots are just 3-2.

Gronkowski caught five touchdown passes in dominating wins over the St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts in which Hernandez was sidelined. Hernandez caught two scoring passes in the last month’s rout of the Texans.

Today, as a 9˝-point underdog, Houston will take on Gronkowski for the first time in his NFL career.

Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez missed five games, as well, while still managing to catch 51 passes from Tom Brady, five of them good for touchdowns. Enlarge photo

Charles Krupa/Associated Press file photo

Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez missed five games, as well, while still managing to catch 51 passes from Tom Brady, five of them good for touchdowns.

In their previous two NFL regular seasons, New England’s Rob Gronkowski played in all 32 games, Aaron Hernandez in 28. They combined for 87 catches in 2010 and 169 in 2011. “Two’s always better than one,” special teams captain and wide receiver Matthew Slater said. Enlarge photo

Elise Amendola/Associated Press file photo

In their previous two NFL regular seasons, New England’s Rob Gronkowski played in all 32 games, Aaron Hernandez in 28. They combined for 87 catches in 2010 and 169 in 2011. “Two’s always better than one,” special teams captain and wide receiver Matthew Slater said.