HOUSTON — The New England Patriots and Rob Gronkowski have been full of pleasant surprises lately.

When Gronkowski suffered a knee injury in Week 12 against the Denver Broncos, it appeared the All-Pro tight end’s season was over. He rolled on the turf, writhing in pain and grabbing his knee. Then the good news that his injury wasn’t a season-ender started to trickle out, and the Patriots made an unusual decision to disclose his ailment as a sprained knee and bone bruise.

Gronkowski returned to practice Thursday and Friday, made the trip to play the Houston Texans and was made active Sunday night. He caught four passes on four targets for 86 yards and one touchdown in the Patriots’ 27-6 win — a ho-hum performance that would be exceptional for any other tight end.

“He is just a huge influence on what we do offensively, and he really toughed it out, so I’m proud of him,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “He had a big touchdown catch. He is obviously a big part of what we do. It’s good having him out there.”

Brady had his best performance Sunday since losing wide receiver Julian Edelman to a broken foot in Week 10, completing 22 of 30 passes for 226 yards with two touchdowns.

Gronkowski was eased back onto the field, playing 42 of a possible 69 snaps, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. It was alarming to see Gronkowski on the field when the Patriots already had a 27-6 lead in the fourth quarter, but that shows how confident the team was in its tight end’s health. It’s also the fewest targets Gronkowski has had since Week 4 of the 2014 season.

“It was easy to be smart,” Gronkowski said. “Just had to work hard. If you worked hard, and you gave everything you gave to get back, and it wasn’t checking out right, well then you know you gave it all you had. That’s how you can be smart about it. Everything just checked out well. Rehabbed hard all week for the last two weeks. It turned out good, and it was great to be back out there.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick downplayed Gronkowski’s return to the field.

“Yeah, I mean, he missed one game, so,” Belichick said. “Yeah, it’s good to have every player we get back. We want all the players out there.”

Gronkowski’s limited presence in the Patriots’ offense was enough to get them back on track after two losses. The Patriots clinched a playoff spot and have reclaimed the AFC’s No. 1 seed, though there still are three regular-season games left for playoff positioning to change.

Thumbnail photo via Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Dec 13, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) reacts during the game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports