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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Patriots Dispatch Texans 41-28, Return To AFC Championship & Rematch With Baltimore

If you want to beat the Patriots (13-4, 7-2 home) in the playoffs at Gillette Stadium, it takes basically a perfect gameplan with likewise flawless execution. Neither of those things describe the Texans (13-5, 6-3 away), who lost 41-28 tonight in the AFC Divisional Round game.

New England advances to its seventh AFC Championship Game under Bill Belichick and it is a rematch of last year as Baltimore comes to Foxborough on Sunday (6:30 p.m., CBS). Atlanta hosts San Francisco in the NFC Championship (3 p.m., Fox). The win took a serious toll on the Pats though as Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm again so he's done for the playoffs while Danny Woodhead (thumb) and Chandler Jones (ankle) left with injuries in the first half and never returned.

Tom Brady (25 of 40, 344 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) was better than Matt Schaub (34 of 51, 343 yards, 2 TDs, INT) but the bigger surprise was that Wes Welker (8 catches, 131 yards) outperformed Andre Johnson (8 catches, 95 yards) and Shane Vereen (41 yards rushing, 83 yards receiving, 3 total TDs) did his best Arian Foster (90 yards rushing, 63 yards receiving, 2 TDs) impression.

Don't let the final score deceive you, this was a blowout. New England was up 38-13 in the fourth quarter before Houston scored a couple late touchdowns, forcing the Patriots to recover an onside kick. The Texans have plenty of talent but their conservative playcalls on offense, Schaub's tendency to falter in the big moment not to mention their shaky defense will hold them back from ever doing anything really notable. Oh and Houston head coach Gary Kubiak is medicore at best.

You knew the Texans were in trouble when Danieal Manning took the opening kickoff 94 yards (Devin McCourty saved the TD) but they couldn't punch it in for a score. Shayne Graham hit a 27-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Vereen's 1-yard TD run late in the first quarter gave New England a 7-3 lead that they would never relinquish.

A 37-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski and 8-yard TD catch by Vereen made it 17-3. Foster's 1-yard TD run (when he might not have crossed the goal-line) gave the Texans some life at 17-10 then the Pats couldn't figure out what they wanted to do at the end of the first half. Houston took advantage, forcing a punt then moving down the field and watching Graham hit a career-long 55-yard kick to cut it to 17-13 at halftime.

New England seemed to be the only team to come back for the second half. They rattled off three straight touchdowns to put it away. Stevan Ridley (82 yards rushing) rumbled in from 8 yards out, Brandon Lloyd caught a 5-yard TD pass then Brady hit Vereen with a beautiful 33-yard TD catch early in the fourth quarter.

DeVier Posey's amazing 25-yard touchdown grab was ruled no catch at first but correctly overturned after review. Foster added a 1-yard touchdown catch before Gostkowski's 38-yard field goal made all the gamblers happy since it allowed the Patriots to cover.

Other standouts for the home team: Aaron Hernandez (6 catches, 85 yards), Aqib Talib (10 tackles, 9 solo) and Rob Ninkovich (4 tackles, 2 solo, 2 passes defensed, tackle for loss, quarterback hit), who recorded the only turnover of the game with a key interception of Schaub in the third quarter. The Pats turned that into seven points on Lloyd's touchdown.

New England has to thank Baltimore (12-6, 5-4 away) since their incredible 38-35 double overtime win last night in Denver allowed the Patriots to host the AFC Championship for the second straight season. The Ravens are a familiar foe since they played in Week 3 in Baltimore (a 31-30 Ravens win) not to mention in last season's AFC Championship (a 23-20 Patriots win thanks to Billy Cundiff's missed chip shot at the end). Baltimore is riding a serious wave of emotion because Ray Lewis is apparently retiring at the end of this season (I'll believe it when I see it).

Last season along with Week 3 have no bearing on what will transpire on Sunday night. These teams play every season and even though the Patriots usually come out on top, the margins are always very close. They don't need extra motivation but the Pats are also chasing immortality as Tom Brady became the winningest quarterback (17 wins) in playoff history with today's victory and Bill Belichick is now third in wins (18, 2 behind leader Tom Landry and 1 behind Don Shula).

Las Vegas lists New England as a 9.5 point favorite (same as vs. Houston) against Baltimore. It seems like a bit too much but the Patriots have proven that they have no problem hanging 30+ on almost anyone in the NFL. The question will be can Joe Flacco and the Ravens score enough to knock off the Pats?

UPDATE 1/14: The Pats hired former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to a yet unnamed position on their coaching staff. Daboll is only 37 and he started his career in New England (2000-06). He was a defensive assistant here then a wide receivers coach. It'll be interesting to see what his role turns out to be going forward next season, maybe this means Josh McDaniels is leaving since he was hired last season around this time and ended up taking Bill O'Brien's job.

UPDATE 1/17: Kevin Faulk and Matt Light will be the honorary team captains for New England on Sunday. They both were part of individual ceremonies earlier this season so hopefully they'll bring their old team good luck.

Also today, it was announced what we already knew: Rob Gronkowski's season is over as he was officially placed on IR. The intriguing part is that opens up a roster space which has to be filled by 4 p.m. on Saturday. What practice squad player will hit the lottery and get to dress for the AFC Championship Game? Stay tuned for that pertinent information.

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