At the end of an exhilarating weekend of NFL playoffs it was perhaps little surprise that the New England Patriots produced the most comfortable victory of the divisional round.
But, even though Tom Brady set a record for most playoff wins by a quarterback and the Patriots advanced to set up an AFC championship rematch with the Baltimore Ravens, the Houston Texans kept the game tighter than many predicted.
And, worse, the Patriots lost the key figure of Rob Gronkowski. The tight end, who was playing in his second game since breaking his forearm, broke his arm again and is expected to miss the rest of the playoffs.
But the Pats were lifted by the surprising performance of reserve running back Shane Vereen, who rushed for one touchdown and caught a pair of TD passes after filling in for injured Danny Woodhead.
Brady, who surpassed legendary QB Joe Montana with his 17th playoff win, completed 25-of-40 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the divisional playoff, to move one win away from a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots, who will host Baltimore on January 20, beat the Ravens 23-20 at home last year for the AFC title to earn their fifth berth in the Super Bowl since 2001.
New England built a 38-13 lead early in the fourth quarter before Houston mounted a frantic comeback that produced a pair of touchdowns to draw within 10 points at 38-28 with just over five minutes to play.
The Patriots recovered an onside-kick and moved the ball into field goal range with kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailing his attempt from 38 yards to put the finishing touch on the victory.
Brady, winner of three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, kept Houston off balance with a hurry-up offense and quick snaps that froze the Texans in their defensive arrangement and caused some confusion at the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots, the league's highest-scoring team who routed the Texans 42-14 last month in a regular season game, got out to a 17-3 lead in the second quarter before the Texans rallied.
Houston, boosted throughout the game by long kickoff returns by Danieal Manning, stormed back with 10 points in the last 75 seconds before the break to make it 17-13 before the Pats put their stamp on the game with a dominant second half.
Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, playing catch-up in the second half, completed 34-of-51 passes for 343 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Running back Arian Foster was held to 90 yards on 22 carries, though he scored one touchdown on the ground and one on a pass from Schaub.
Five things we learned in the playoffs will be online later today
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