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 Patriots to the Super Bowl after earning his record 17th postseason victory in New England’s 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 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, 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 told The Associated Press.
However, he got the usual outstanding performance from Wes Welker. The AFC’s top receiver with 118 catches this season, Welker looked as if 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).
“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 not only Gronkowski, but running back 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.
“Whenever the season ends, no matter when, it’s really hard,” Houston 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 35-yard kickoff return 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).