Brady’s 17th playoff win sends Pats to AFC final

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady is so good at this playoff thing, he seems to be going for a championship every year.

He gets another chance to lead the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl after earning his record 17th postseason victory in a 41-28 victory over Houston on 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 passed 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, including tight end Rob Gronkowski, who broke his left arm and is out for the rest of the playoffs, a person with knowledge of the injury said.

However, Brady got the usual outstanding performance by Wes Welker, his favorite target the last six years. The AFC’s top receiver with 118 catches this season, Welker 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 Vereen, a third-string running back 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 touchdown pass, behind only Brett Favre (44) and, you guessed it, Montana (45).

Nice company to be keeping.

“I grew up a 49ers fan,” the 35-year-old Brady said. “Joe Montana and Steve Young … those guys are in another class.

“I hope I am around for a few more years,” he added with a smile.

The boost by Vereen offset the loss of not only Gronkowski, but running back Danny Woodhead (thumb) during the first quarter.

“Shane had a great game, just a huge growing up moment for him, very special,” Brady said.

Vereen was an unlikely star. After gaining 400 yards overall during the season, he picked up 124 against the Texans. He had four touchdowns during 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.”

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 touchdowns 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.

“The farther along you get, the harder it is to take,” tight end Owen Daniels said. “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 rally.

Arian Foster did all the work after Danieal Manning’s second big kickoff return, 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.”

New England lost Gronkowski and Woodhead almost immediately. Gronkowski missed five regular-season games with a broken left forearm, but returned for the finale. He was gone again Sunday after eight plays.

So Brady found other targets; he probably could complete passes to Belichick for big gains.

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