Tom Brady is so good at this playoff thing he seems to be playing for a championship every year.
He gets another chance to lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl after earning his record 17th postseason victory in New England's 41-28 victory over Houston Sunday. Brady even outdid his childhood hero, Joe Montana, and a fourth NFL championship would equal Montana's haul.
"I love playing, I love competing, I love being a part of this organization," said Brady, who threw for three touchdowns and 344 yards. "I think I've just been fortunate to play on some great teams over the years. I never take it for granted."
Next up is Baltimore, which stunned top-seeded Denver in double overtime Saturday, and lost 23-20 at Gillette Stadium last January in the last step before the Super Bowl. But the Ravens beat the Patriots in Week 3 this season at Baltimore.
"I think the two best teams are in the final," Brady said. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we."
Seldom-used Shane Vereen scored three times, twice on pinpoint throws from Brady, as New England (13-4) beat Houston (13-5) for the second time in a month.
Brady was missing some key helpers, but got the usual outstanding performance from Wes Welker, his favorite target the last six years. The AFC's top receiver with 118 catches this season, Welker looked like he might reach that total against Houston's befuddled defense. He caught six in the first half for 120 yards, including a 47-yarder, and wound up with eight for 131.
And the AFC East champion Patriots got more than anyone could have predicted from third-string running back Vereen, who scored their first two TDs on a 1-yard run and an 8-yard pass. He capped his biggest pro performance with an over-the-shoulder 33-yard catch early in the fourth period.
It was Brady's 41st postseason TD pass, behind only Brett Favre (44) and, you guessed it, Montana (45).
Nice company to be keeping.
"I grew up a 49ers fan," Brady said after throwing for three touchdowns in the AFC divisional playoff. "Joe Montana and Steve Young ... those guys are in another class.
"I hope I am around for a few more years," the 35-year-old Brady added with a smile.
The boost from Vereen offset the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski (reinjured left arm) and RB Danny Woodhead (thumb) in the first quarter.
"Shane had a great game, just a huge growing up moment for him, very special," Brady said. "There were a lot of guys who made a lot of plays."
New England's defense helped put away the Texans. Rob Ninkovich's leaping third-quarter interception stopped a drive, and six plays later, Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for a 6-yard score.
Although the Texans got two fourth-quarter TDs on passes by Matt Schaub, their season ended with four defeats in their last six games. That slump cost the AFC South champions the top seed in the playoffs, forcing a trip to New England after they beat Cincinnati in the wild-card round.
The Texans couldn't measure up.
"Whenever the season ends, no matter when, it's really hard," tight end Owen Daniels said. "The farther along you get, the harder it is to take. It's one we wanted to win really bad. It's tough to swallow ... but one team gets to have a smile on their face at the end of the season, and it's not us this year."
Unlike their 42-14 loss here a month ago, the Texans didn't fold early. J.J. Watt, their dominating defensive end, bothered Brady, and when they fell behind 17-3, they had the fortitude to climb back.
Arian Foster did all the work after Danieal Manning's second big kickoff return, this one a 35-yarder that had 15 yards tacked on when kicker Stephen Gostkowski brought down Manning with a horse-collar tackle. The Pro Bowl runner covered all 47 yards on a five-play drive and his 1-yard run — he barely squeezed into the end zone — made it 17-10.
Houston forced a three-and-out, and a short punt gave the Texans another shot just before halftime. They got close enough for Shayne Graham to kick a 55-yard field goal as the half ended.
But the Patriots pulled away in the third quarter for coach Bill Belichick's 17th postseason win, third behind Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19).
Now come the Ravens.
"It's sweet just playing in the AFC championship," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. "It's a team that beat us earlier this year at their house, and a team that's riled up for us."
Needing a quick jolt after being blown out by the Patriots on Dec. 10, the Texans got it on the opening kickoff from Manning. He took the ball 6 yards in his end zone and never hesitated in returning it. He broke free at the Houston 30 and wasn't run down until reaching the New England 12.
That spark didn't even last one play, though, and Houston wound up with Graham's 27-yard field goal 63 seconds in.
And when the Texans closed the first half with a 10-point spurt, they wasted the momentum by allowing a quick touchdown drive to open the third period. Brady went to the familiar (Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez) on that series before second-year back Stevan Ridley scored on an 8-yard burst.
New England lost Gronkowski and Woodhead almost immediately. Gronkowski missed five regular-season games with a broken left forearm, but returned for the finale. Eight Patriots plays on offense and he was gone again.
So Brady found other targets; he probably could complete passes to Belichick for big gains.
Vereen was an unlikely star. After gaining 400 yards overall during the season, he picked up 124 against the Texans. He had four touchdowns in the regular season.
"I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play," Vereen said. "I come into the game ready to go, and if my number is called, I do my best for the team."
NOTES: Brady is 5-2 in Super Bowls and if he reaches a sixth, he'll join a club that currently totals one player — defensive tackle Mike Lodish. ... New England has played in eight AFC championship games, going 7-1, including 5-1 with Brady and Belichick. ... Brady threw for 344 yards, and Schaub threw for 343. Schaub's TD passes were 25 yards to DeVier Posey and 1 to Foster. ... Foster had 90 yards rushing, the first time in four playoff games he did not reach 100. But his 515 tie for most in a player's first four playoff games with Denver's Terrell Davis.
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