FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For Rob Gronkowski, it’s payback time.

Not for the Pittsburgh Steelers, or the officials, or the league or the haters, but for the New England Patriots. He owes his teammates a Gronkian performance Sunday in their most important game of the regular season after an uncharacteristic mental lapse in Buffalo cost him a one-game suspension that burned the Pats in Miami on Monday night.

Gronkowski’s league-enforced absence was hardly the only reason for the Patriots’ flat performance in a 27-20 loss to the Dolphins, but it surely didn’t help. Rather than double-covering Gronkowski, as the Dolphins often did two weeks earlier at Gillette Stadium, they spied Brandin Cooks’ deep routes and took away the Patriots’ leading receiver.

Meanwhile, wideout Chris Hogan returned from a four-game absence because of a shoulder injury that continued to bother him so badly that he dropped his arm in agony after attempting to block for Dion Lewis on a second-quarter screen pass. And slot receiver Danny Amendola couldn’t get going until the second half.

It’s no coincidence the Patriots have had their two lowest scoring outputs this season while Gronkowski has been out of uniform, including a 19-14 win against the Buccaneers when he had a thigh contusion.

“He’s a great player,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “He’s a great matchup for us in the passing game. He’s a great blocker in the run game. His size, speed is good. They’ve got to really factor him in. He’s obviously a big part of our offense and gets a lot of targets, and he makes a lot of big plays. I think when he’s out there, it’s just tougher to defend. The better players you have out there on the field, the tougher it is to defend, and Gronk has been one of the best to ever play at that position, so it’s good for our offense.”

Yeah, the Patriots won the Super Bowl last season without Gronkowski, but Julian Edelman was healthy enough to dominate in similar areas of the field. So by losing Gronk because of a suspension that resulted from a forearm to the back of the head of Tre’Davious White of the Bills, it made life all the more difficult for Brady. He was sacked twice, hit four times and pressured on another six occasions because he couldn’t unload the ball as quickly.

And he threw two interceptions in a regular-season game for the first time in a couple years.

The timing of Gronkowski’s return couldn’t be any better. In five games against the Steelers, he has 30 receptions for 496 yards and eight touchdowns, and he has more yards and scores against them than any non-divisional opponent. He has reached 90 yards in four of those games. And in the game he didn’t? He made up for it with three touchdowns.

Don’t forget about next week against the vengeful Bills, who might be out for revenge while the Patriots are in search of the No. 1 seed or at least a first-round bye. Gronkowski has 61 catches, 960 yards and 11 touchdowns against the Bills, marking his career highs against any opponent.

The Patriots now need these games more than ever. If they beat the Steelers, Bills and Jets, they’ll lock up the AFC’s top seed. But if the Pats fall to the Steelers, the Jaguars would seize control of the No. 2 seed with wins against the Texans, 49ers and Titans. A loss Sunday could force the Patriots to open the postseason in the wild-card round, and they never have reached the Super Bowl during the Bill Belichick era by taking that path.

Gronkowski has been the ultimate teammate since 2010, and a poor decision against the Bills was just that. He has a far more expansive track record of doing the right thing on the field or behind the scenes.

And for that, it’s a safe assurance he’s preparing to go off in the Steel City to pick up his teammates when he couldn’t do that Monday night.

“He’s hungry,” Lewis said. “He’s happy to be back.”

There are 52 other Patriots who feel the same, and they need Gronkowski to pick them up in a game that will set the table for the playoffs.