By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 13, 2013

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FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots might not want to let the Baltimore Ravens score 28 points and try to win, though in September it would have done just fine.

The Patriots can be thankful that Matt Schaub is not a top-shelf quarterback, that like Baltimore, they can get away with two long returns and still win, and that they get to play at home with their third playoff date with the Ravens in the last four seasons. The Patriots will once again play for the AFC Championship, sealing that deal with a 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots played well enough to win, though it was nowhere near as dominating as the December win over Houston. This was more or less expected, but Houston was in a position to win this game all the way into the third quarter before the Patriots finally got some separation and made things somewhat comfortable. It really wasn't completely comfortable until a defensive holding call on Kareem Jackson that kept the final Patriot offensive drive alive that you began to really exhale. All game long, Houston played the Patriots tough, but in the end the Patriots had more material despite losing two offensive cogs to injury on the first two drives of the game.

On the first play of the game, Danny Woodhead was stuffed at the line of scrimmage by J.J. Watt, injured his thumb and did not return. On the next drive, on second and 11 at their own 22, Tom Brady saw a matchup he liked with Rob Gronkowski lined up as a wideout on the right side with defensive lineman Antonio Smith lined up in man coverage. Gronkowski ran a deep sideline pattern, Brady lofted it up there, and Gronkowski caught the ball out of bounds. But he landed right on his injured forearm, came out of the game, and now will miss the remainder of the postseason. It would have been more palatable if he had been injured over the middle while being held by two defenders instead of trying to be like Brandon Lloyd.

Or Shane Vereen. Picking up a lot of the offensive slack from the loss of Gronkowski and Woodhead, Vereen was the offensive star of the game for the Patriots. The Patriot running back scored three touchdowns, two on pass receptions. He rushed in from one yard out late in the first quarter to give the Patriots a 7-3 lead, then late in the second quarter he was the benefactor of blown coverage and took a dump pass in the left flat for 8 yards and a touchdown which put the Patriots up 17-3. Early in the fourth quarter, after the Patriots stopped the Texans on downs at the Houston 33, Brady sent Vereen on a left sideline pattern, the same as Gronkowski. Brady floated a lollipop pass to Vereen, and he caught it in stride with Barrett Ruud in futile pursuit. Vereen took it to the house and it was 38-13 Patriots with most of the fourth quarter left.

Vereen finished with 124 all-purpose yards, with 83 yards receiving on 5 catches and two touchdowns and 41 yards rushing on seven carries and one touchdown (a 5.9 yards per carry average). Stevan Ridley chipped in with princely numbers as well, with 82 yards rushing on 15 carries and one catch for 13 yards. That's 219 all-purpose yards from the two running backs, and zero yards from Woodhead. This right here was a major component in the Patriot win.

Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and had a passer rating of 115. While he didn't dazzle with brilliance, it was plenty good enough to make him the winningest quarterback in NFL postseason history with 17 wins, passing Joe Montana. Wes Welker had eight catches for 131 yards, while Aaron Hernandez had 85 yards on six catches.

Schaub fell one yard shy of matching Brady on passing yardage, but threw one less touchdown pass and one more pick than Brady. The Patriots did not lock down the Houston offense like they did in December, with Owen Daniels, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster chipping in with 239 combined pass receiving yards. Foster also had 90 yards rushing on 22 carries, giving him 153 all-purpose yards, a good night but far less productive than Vereen.

Of particular concern was the two touchdowns the Texans scored in the fourth quarter after the Patriots seemingly put the game on ice following the bomb to Vereen. Immediately after the Vereen bomb, Danieal Manning had a 69-yard kickoff return, then four plays later Schaub hit DeVier Posey from 25 yards out for a touchdown, which had to be reversed on replay after the initial call was incomplete as he caught the ball on his back while juggling. Replays showed Posey had control of the ball while sliding out of bounds. After a three-and-out for the Patriots thanks to an offensive pass interference call on Hernandez, the Texans went on an 11-play, 63-yard drive capped off by a one-yard touchdown run by Foster and a two-point conversion pass from Schaub to Johnson to make it 38-28.

On the second drive, it seemed that the Patriots were bent on giving Houston all sorts of short gains which ate up clock. It did cut the score down to a ten-point margin after it had been a 25-point spread a few minutes earlier. On the ensuing drive, after recovering an onside kick which was initially mishandled by Patrick Chung, the Patriots were able to bleed Houston dry of timeouts, kick a field goal and start planning for Baltimore.

Manning was another concern. He had four kickoff returns for 216 yards and a 54-yard average. He took the opening kickoff and rumbled 94 yards to the Patriot 12. A hustling tackle by Devin McCourty turned out to be a key play early on in the game, as the tackle prevented a touchdown and Houston would subsequently go three-and-out and kick a field goal. It was Houston's only lead of the game, and settling for a field goal seemed to negate the long return to begin the contest. The same thing happened to Baltimore on Saturday in Denver, and it stands to reason that both the Patriots and Ravens will address kickoff coverage this week in practice.

So here we go again. Patriots-Ravens at Foxborough for the second year in a row and third time in the last four seasons. Ray Lewis doesn't want to retire just yet, Terrell Suggs still hates Brady and hates missed 32-yard field goals even worse, Bernard Pollard will look to maim someone else, and the entire nation is going to want an all-Harbaugh Super Bowl. Outside of the northeast, much of the nation is going to root for Baltimore to play San Francisco in the Super Bowl, which almost happened last year. These games are wars; the Patriots lead the all-time series, 7 wins against 2 losses, but the wins are tough wins and they hate the Patriots with a passion.

Just hit your mute button when Lewis comes on and you'll enjoy this week a little bit more.


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