After putting the New England Patriots back in a very familiar position, Tom Brady now finds himself in an unprecedented place in the record books.
The star quarterback threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns to lead New England to its second straight trip to the AFC Championship Game, with the defending conference champions advancing with a 41-28 triumph over the Houston Texans in Sunday's Divisional Playoff from Gillette Stadium.
Brady completed 25-of-40 passes without an interception en route to his 17th career postseason victory as a starting signal-caller, moving him past Hall of Famer Joe Montana and into sole possession of first place on the NFL's all- time list in that category.
"He's our leader, and we all follow him," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "He led the team today along with a lot of other guys, but he certainly did his part, as he's done many times before. No quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady."
Shane Vereen hauled in two of Brady's scoring strikes and accumulated 83 yards on five catches, while also adding a rushing touchdown to help get the Patriots back in the AFC title game for the seventh time overall under the combination of Brady and Belichick.
New England will host Baltimore, a 38-35 double-overtime winner over top- seeded Denver in Saturday's other Divisional bout, next Sunday in a rematch of the 2011 conference championship. The Patriots bested the Ravens in a 23-20 thriller in last year's game.
The Patriots rolled up 457 total yards on Houston's highly regarded defense despite playing most of the way without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who exited the contest on New England's second offensive series with a reported re-fracture of his surgically repaired left forearm, an injury that sidelined him for five weeks during the regular season.
Along with Vereen, Wes Welker helped offset Gronkowski's absence by amassing 131 yards on eight receptions.
"That's what Josh does best," said Brady in reference to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "He gets guys in the best position to make plays and always comes up with a way to adept and scheme things up. There's no one better in the league."
Matt Schaub finished with 343 yards and two touchdowns with one interception on 34-of-51 passing for the Texans, who saw their season end in the Divisional Round for a second consecutive year. Arian Foster compiled 153 yards from scrimmage and scored both a rushing and receiving touchdown in the loss, Houston's fourth in six outings since beginning the season 11-1.
"We made a lot of plays, we had a lot of opportunities to make plays," said Scahub. "We missed on a few of them, but guys made a ton of plays for me and guys battled up front. Ultimately, we didn't make enough."
New England's offense put up touchdowns on its first three drives in last month's 42-14 blowout of the Texans in Foxboro, but was sluggish out of the gates in this one. The Pats managed just 31 yards and two first downs while punting on their initial two possessions, but got untracked and produced three consecutive scoring drives to move in front after spotting Houston a 3-0 edge.
Brady went 3-for-3 for 52 yards on the first of those sequences, highlighted by a 25-yard connection to Vereen that moved the Patriots inside the red zone. He followed with a 14-yard completion to Aaron Hernandez that created a 1st- and-goal at the 1, with Vereen crossing the goal line on the next play to put New England ahead late in the first quarter.
The Pats marched 65 yards on 11 plays on their subsequent touch, with Welker keeping the chains moving with a key 30-yard catch-and-run on 3rd-and-8 and Vereen adding a 22-yard scamper later on. New England got as far as the Houston 16, but a personal foul penalty on wideout Brandon Lloyd for throwing the ball at an official caused the drive to eventually stall and culminate in Stephen Gostkowski's 37-yard field goal for a 10-3 lead less than five minutes into the second quarter.
After New England's defense then forced a fourth straight Houston punt, Brady dropped in a perfectly thrown deep pass to Welker for a 47-yard gain to set up another touchdown, this one an 8-yard delivery to a wide-open Vereen in the left flat that stretched the Pats' advantage to 17-3 with 3:38 remaining before halftime.
"Shane had a great game," Brady remarked. "Just a huge growing up moment for him."
Houston would regain some momentum prior to the break, however, with Danieal Manning's 35-yard return of the ensuing kickoff with a horse-collar violation tacked on giving the Texans excellent field position. Foster ran the ball all five times on the short 47-yard jaunt, which the Pro Bowl back capped with a 1-yard burst that trimmed the deficit to seven points with 1:15 left in the half.
The Texans got the ball back with 24 seconds to go after inducing a swift three-and-out, and three Schaub completions -- one to James Casey, two to Owen Daniels -- set the stage for Shayne Graham's 55-yard attempt that the veteran kicker knocked through as time expired to pull Houston within 17-13 at intermission.
That would be as close as the Texans would get, however.
New England came out firing to begin the third quarter, with Brady engineering a 7-play, 69-yard opening series that featured a 40-yard hookup with Hernandez to the Houston 12. Two plays later, Stevan Ridley powered his way into the end zone from eight yards out to extend the margin back to double digits.
The Texans tried to answer later in the quarter, but Rob Ninkovich intercepted Schaub in New England territory to thwart a scoring opportunity. The Pats proceeded to advance 63 yards in just six plays, with Ridley ripping off a 23- yard run right before Brady found Lloyd for a 5-yard score that gave the reigning AFC champs a commanding 31-13 lead they would take into the final frame.
"There's a sequence right there in the third quarter, right there when the game was big-time on the line, 17-13," said Houston head coach Gary Kubiak. "You need to come out at your best, and you miss a couple of turns and that team will get you in trouble."
With Houston now in desperation mode, Kubiak opted to go for it on 4th- and-1 from his team's own 33 on the following drive, but Schaub's downfield pass for DeVier Posey landed well short under heavy pressure and the Patriots took over on downs.
New England wasted no time moving further ahead, as Brady hit Vereen on a wheel route down the left sideline for a back-breaking touchdown with under two minutes elapsed in the fourth quarter.
The Texans would score a pair of late touchdowns to give themselves a chance. Posey snared a 25-yard heave from Schaub with 11:35 to go following another long kick return by Manning, and Houston went 79 yards on 11 plays on their next drive after New England failed to get a first down.
Consecutive catches of 24 and 12 yards by Daniels got Houston inside the 5- yard line, and Foster came down with Schaub's fourth-down pass from the 1 in traffic to further close the gap. After Andre Johnson caught the subsequent 2- point conversion try, the Texans found themselves down 38-28 with 5:11 left to play.
The Texans then lined up for an onsides kick, but Ninkovich came out of a pile with the football to help put Houston's comeback hopes on ice.
New England was able to run the clock down under the two-minute warning afterward, aided by a clutch 8-yard reception by Lloyd on 3rd-and-2 with under four minutes left and the Texans out of time outs, before Gostkowski booted a 38-yard field goal for the final points.
Houston got off to a far better start than its previous meeting with the Pats thanks to Manning, who found a seam on the opening kickoff and broke off a 94- yard return before being brought down by the Pats' Devin McCourty at the New England 12. Though Schaub misfired on a pair of attempts to bring on fourth down, Graham salvaged the series with a 27-yard field goal for a quick 3-0 lead just over a minute in.
The Patriots also lost running back Danny Woodhead to a thumb injury on their first offensive series ... Welker's eight catches gave him 61 as a Patriot in postseason play, moving him past Troy Brown (58) for the most in franchise history, and his 131 receiving yards bettered his previous single-game high in the playoffs (103 against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII) ... Graham's 55-yard field goal established a new career best and set a record for the longest kick at Gillette Stadium in a postseason game ... Foster joined Terrell Davis as one of only two players to rush for 500 or more yards in his first four career playoff outings ... The victory was Belichick's 18th as a head coach in the postseason, breaking a tie with Joe Gibbs for third place on the NFL's career list ... New England improved to 14-3 all-time at home in the playoffs, one more than Denver for the most postseason wins as the host in league history ... Houston finished with 91 rushing yards and fell to 2-5 when gaining 102 or less on the ground this season.