Dual threat: Shane Vereen scored three touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing) to lead the Patriots past the Texans and back into the AFC Championship game.
Remember just over a month ago when the Texans were the best team in the AFC? With the best defense in the league? Yeah, I’m having a little bit of trouble recalling that too. It seems just a bit far-fetched right about now.
It wasn’t quite like the first time around, but the Texans still gave up 40 points, J.J. Watt still didn’t bat a pass, Rob Gronkowski still ended up missing the majority of the game (more on that a little bit later) and the Patriots still scored 40-plus points. They also won and believe it or not, it is the first time in the Brady-Belichick era that the team has won a playoff game that was a rematch of a regular season game (1-6).
In the final game of the weekend, Tom Brady became the winningest quarterback in NFL history as he passed his idol Joe Montana with his 17th career postseason victory to set up a rematch with the Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Sunday following the 41-28 victory.
The Texans won the toss and, perhaps to the delight of the Patriots, elected to receive as the temperature reached 51 degrees in a January heat wave in Foxboro. The teams were each at full strength and it was time to see whether the game five weeks ago was a fluke or a preview.
What happened when the ball came down in the hands of Danieal Manning six yards deep in the endzone shocked everybody, however. After taking over the kick return duties just last week, he found a seam and took off running. It looked like he was gone until Devin McCourty caught him from behind at the 12-yard line of New England.
The Pats defense held and after fullback James Casey dropped a likely touchdown pass, Houston was forced to kick a field goal, which was good from 27 yards out by Shayne Graham. Following just eight yards on their first drive, however, Zoltan Mesko was on the field as the Patriots went three-and-out, but a monster punt and good coverage set Houston up back at their own 17-yard line.
Houston punted the ball back, but on a second-and-long, Gronkowski landed on his injured left arm while trying to catch a pass and looked to be in some serious pain. A conversion on third and 11 kept the drive going, but then Wes Welker, who took a big hit to move the chains on the previous third down, dropped a relatively easy pass on third and eight and the Texans got the ball back, still leading 3-0 with 5:49 left as Gronkowski went to the locker room. Again, Houston punted though after Aqib Talib nearly picked off a second-down pass and Arian Foster dropped one on third down.
Brady then led the Pats on a 65-yard drive following a poor punt by Donnie Jones. The six-play drive utilized Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen for five of the plays. A 13-yard reception by Ridley and a 25-yarder by Vereen set them up in the red zone. Vereen then took it in from a yard out and gave the Patriots the lead with 1:28 left in the first on the first postseason rushing touchdown of his career. After kicking the extra point, Stephen Gostkowski made sure to get all of the ball on the kickoff to keep Manning from running another one back deep into their territory. New England led 7-3 after one.
Houston picked up a few yards, but stalled again. Jones’ third punt of the day gave New England the ball back, but a good-looking drive stalled when Brandon Lloyd made a pretty big mistake in his first playoff game. He was called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the red zone for throwing the ball at the official with a bit too much force, but again, Vereen looked very solid, picking up 48 yards on the drive, including a 22-yard run and a six-yard run on third and two in which he made Connor Barwin look pretty foolish. Gostkowski nailed a 37-yard field goal to extend the home team’s lead to 10-3 with just over 10 minutes left in the half.
Same story on the next Houston drive. After a solid start and the first good run from Foster on the day, Dont’a Hightower blew up a play in the backfield and Steve Gregory made a nice open-field tackle on third and 12 to force another punt. Gregory also made another play earlier in the drive to kill a little momentum with a pass break-up following a 24-yard hook-up between Matt Schaub and DeVier Posey.
With a chance to really grab momentum, the Patriots did just that with an 80-yard touchdown drive that included a 13-yard reception by Welker on third and 11 and a 47-yard, one-handed catch by the little guy to set up first and goal. Again, Vereen got into the endzone, this time on a Brady pass from eight yards out and just like that, it was 17-3 Patriots. Lloyd caught the first pass of his postseason career for seven yards earlier in the drive and Welker became the team’s all-time leader in playoff receptions on the 47-yarder. He broke Troy Brown‘s old record of 58 and at the end of the game, had 61.
Another impressive kick return from Manning forced Gostkowski to try to stop him, but he committed a horse-collar tackle that set the Texans up at the New England 47-yard line. They then rode Foster, who, on five carries in five plays, got the first Texans touchdown of the day. After review, the touchdown was confirmed and the New England lead was cut to seven. Foster now has scored a rushing touchdown in all four of his career playoff games.
It was just the third touchdown for the Texans in their last 13 red zone appearances. With just over a minute left, Brady and the Patriots took the field, but like Peyton Manning the night before, appeared content to get to the next quarter. He was hit again on third down and Houston got the ball back with 24 seconds left and three timeouts. Mesko’s punt was nearly blocked and the Texans set up at their own 38-yard line.
Apparently, Houston called their final timeout with two seconds left and attempted a 55-yard field goal. Graham, a former Patriot, nailed it to tighten things up as the half expired. It was 17-13 New England after two due to the longest postseason field goal in Gillette Stadium history and the longest of Graham’s career.
Found home: Arian Foster scored his fourth touchdown in as many playoff games in the second quarter of Houston’s loss to the Patriots.
After a very slow start, Foster finished the half with 57 yards and a touchdown. Andre Johnson caught four balls for 54 yards as the Texans scored 10 points in final 80 seconds of the half. Welker caught six for 120 in the first two quarters – the most first-half receiving yards in a Patriots’ postseason game. Vereen had 85 total yards in the opening half. Houston closed the half out with two straight scores after New England had scored three in a row.
The second half opened with a pretty good return from Pro Bowler Matthew Slater and a drive that lasted just over three minutes. Aaron Hernandez had a third down conversion on the drive and also burned the Houston secondary for a 40-yard catch-and-run to set the Pats up at the 12-yard line. Ridley took it in from eight yards out two plays later to seize back the momentum and put New England up 24-13 as he joined Vereen with his first career postseason touchdown run.
Then, it appeared that momentum had really shifted as Owen Daniels appeared to fumble the ball, but it was ruled that his forward progress was halted just before the fumble. That didn’t appear to be so true, but the Texans held on to the ball and faced third and five. Jerod Mayo forced the fumble and Vince Wilfork, who continues to make plays, recovered it. Justin Francis and Trevor Scott applied the pressure on Schaub on third down and forced him to throw it away.
Brady then had all day on third down, but couldn’t find anyone and Mesko was back on to punt. He pinned the Texans at their own 10-yard line and they pinned themselves at their own five with a false start penalty. A 28-yard pass to Foster, which he actually caught in his own endzone, would give them some breathing room and again, Houston began driving. Schaub then dropped the ball while scrambling (for some reason), but it was an interception by Rob Ninkovich - the first of his postseason career – on third down that got New England the ball back. It was the first turnover of the day by either team. Ninkovich just continues to make plays for this team.
Six plays later and the Patriots were back in the endzone. Lloyd caught his first career postseason touchdown from six yards out on a quick pass from Brady and the Pats had scored on 30 straight red zone possessions. He became the 20th different receiver to catch a touchdown pass from Brady in the playoffs. They were helped out by 37 yards from Ridley on the drive, including a 23-yard burst to set up the first and goal. It took just two minutes and 53 seconds for them to get into the endzone following the turnover. With 1:25 left in the third, the lead was 18 – its biggest of the day to that point. It was the 40th postseason touchdown pass of Brady’s career. Only Montana (45) and Brett Favre (44) have more.
As the game changed to the fourth quarter, Houston barely picked up the yard they needed on fourth and one as Foster bobbled the pitch, but reached for the necessary yardage. Kevin Walter came up just short on third and long and for the second straight time, the Texans went for it on fourth and inches. Schaub airmailed his pass way over the head of Posey and gave the ball back to the home team. The pass wasn’t even close.
Brady wasted no time as he found Vereen, the X-factor, on a 34-yard pass to the endzone to make the score 38-13 in favor of the Patriots with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game. Brady found the mismatch with linebacker Barrett Ruud in coverage against the speedy Vereen and exploited it like awlays. With his third touchdown of the day, Vereen, who was likely only getting the reps he got because of an early thumb injury to Danny Woodhead, tied Gronkowski and Curtis Martin for the most touchdowns by a Patriot in a playoff game. He became the first player since Ricky Watters in Super Bowl XXIX to have two receiving TD’s and a rushing TD in a playoff game.
Again, however, Manning broke off a big return and took it to the 37-yard line of the Patriots, but this time Foster converted on fourth and one. Schaub then hit Posey on a 25-yard touchdown pass and after initially being ruled incomplete, the call was overturned. Posey bobbled the ball, but it was determined that he came down with it pinned to his chest just before his shoulder went out of bounds. It was the first touchdown catch of his career and the first postseason touchdown pass of Schaub’s career. The score stood at 38-20 with 11 and a half remaining.
Houston got the ball back quickly following a New England three-and-out. An offensive pass interference called on a wide-open Hernandez negated a first down and Mesko punted it back to the Texans. He got quite a good bounce and Houston got the ball at their own 21-yard line. Schaub drove the Texans down the field and on their fourth fourth-down play of the fourth quarter, he hit Foster with a one-yard pass for the touchdown. He then hit Johnson for the two-point conversion after buying time and it was a 10-point game with just over five minutes left. Would have been six without McCourty tackle.
Graham, who was just 1-for-6 in his career, attempted an onside kick and though it was bouncing around for a while after Patrick Chung couldn’t corral it, Ninkovich was in the right place at the right time to scoop it up and let us all breathe a little easier. For the moment, at least.
And then it was complete. A defensive holding call on Kareem Jackson negated the Texans’ only batted pass of the day and gave the Patriots an automatic first down. Houston used its last timeout after the next play and Brady began milking the clock with Ridley and Vereen. He took a knee on third down and Gostkowski came on to make it official. He was good for the second time on the day, this time from 38 yards out and the Pats had put up 40 points on the Texans again.
Time ran out on Houston and they still have not won two playoff games in the same postseason. They also gave up 83 points to the Patriots this year. The 41 points they allowed were the most in franchise playoff history. They had not allowed more than 20 in their three previous postseason games.
As you may have heard by now, however, for the second straight postseason, the news following a big win wasn’t all good. Before the game had even ended, we had learned that Gronkowski will be missing the rest of the postseason after he re-broke his arm in the first quarter.
More harm to the arm: Rob Gronkowski broke his left arm for the second time in eight weeks while trying to make this catch down the sideline in the first quarter.
Both teams gained more than 400 yards on offense with the Patriots amassing 457 and Houston 425 on the day. After his very productive first half, Welker caught just two balls for 11 yards in the second half and his recent theme of playoff drops continued. The Texans struggled getting off the field on third down as the Pats converted 6-of-13 on the day, while Houston only converted 4-of-15 themselves. That was big in the game.
Brady will make his seventh start in the AFC Championship game, tying Montana for most AFC/NFC Championship game starts all-time (5-1). While he was only sacked once in this game, he did face a lot more pressure than he did in the first matchup. Brady completed 20 passes in his 13th straight playoff game, an NFL record. Also, his 344 yards gave him his fifth career 300-yard passing game in the playoffs – third all-time.
The strong Texans defense recorded only one sack against the Patriots this year. Brady finished the game 25-of-40 for 344 yards, three touchdowns and, perhaps most importantly, no interceptions. He had a passer rating of 115.0. Schaub finished 34-of-51 for 343 yards, two touchdowns and the one big interception.
Foster carried the ball just 22 times, compared to 32 last week, for 90 yards and a touchdown. He tied the record held by Terrell Davis for the most rushing yards by a player in his first four career playoff games (515). Ridley ran for 82 yards and the score. Vereen finished with 124 total yards to go along with the three touchdowns. He also became the first Patriot since 2004 with both a receiving and rushing touchdown in a playoff game (Deion Branch).
Hernandez caught six balls for 85 yards and Lloyd had five for 32. Johnson led Houston with eight catches for 95 yards and Daniels had nine for 81. Talib and Gregory led the Pats with 10 tackles apiece and Bradie James led Houston with 11.
Pats running backs ran for two touchdowns in the game. In the team’s previous five playoff games, their running backs had just one rushing score. Again, the Texans failed to disrupt one pass at the line of scrimmage, just like in the last game.
Watt had just half of a sack in the game after it was rumored that he spat on the Patriots logo prior to his pre-game warm-up. He made four tackles on the afternoon.
Remember the first play of the game? When McCourty tackled Manning at the 12 to save a touchdown. It kind of ended up being big. The score was 38-28 at its closest point in the second half and was a four-possession game at 38-13 instead of three at 38-17. Just saying.
If there’s one thing the team absolutely needs to improve on for next week, it is kickoff coverage. They allowed 230 yards to Houston, 216 of which came from Manning. It won’t get any easier next week either as they will be dealing with Pro Bowl kick returner Jacoby Jones of the Ravens.
Along with Gronk and Woodhead, who left after carrying the ball on the first play of the game, Chandler Jones also left the game early on with an ankle injury. Francis did a pretty nice job filling in for his fellow rookie as he applied some pressure on Schaub and had a tackle. For the Texans, Posey was carted off the field in the fourth.
It was the 18th postseason win for Bill Belichick. That’s good for the third-most all-time. Only Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19) have more. The Pats improved to 12-0 when leading home playoff games at the half.
Five weeks later and the result was the same. The Patriots will move on to host the Ravens next week with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Three of the same four teams have reached Championship Weekend as last year (49ers, Ravens, Patriots).
It’s the Ravens and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium for the second straight year with the winner advancing the Super Bowl. Brady will have a chance to improve to 2-6 in playoff games that are rematches from the regular season. Baltimore beat the Pats (officially), 31-30, back in Week 3. New England got past the Ravens, 23-20, in last year’s AFC Title game.
It should be a good one. Can’t wait for next Sunday at 6:30 on CBS.
Follow me on Twitter @RealAndyLarmand.