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The New England Patriots advanced to their seventh AFC Championship in the Belichick era on Sunday night, topping the Houston Texans 41-28 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
The team received contributions from multiple players, both on offense, defense, and even special teams. New England was in control throughout, never relinquishing their lead after a late first-quarter touchdown. The Patriots will remain home all week, as they entertain the Baltimore Ravens in next week’s AFC Championship.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady showed no signs of rust after the week off, slicing the Houston defense to the tune of 344 yards and three touchdowns on 25-40 passing. Brady spread the wealth as well, with Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Shane Vereen each recording five or more receptions.
Welker finished the contest with eight receptions for 131 yards and a score, while Aaron Hernandez hauled in six catches for 85 yards. Both Shane Vereen and Brandon Lloyd finished with five catches each for 83 and 32 yards, respectively.
Conventional wisdom states that successful teams must run the ball and stop the run to succeed in the playoffs, and the Patriots did just that in their win over Houston. New England rushed for 122 yards on 24 team carries, as both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen shouldered the load. Ridley tallied 82 yards on 15 carries and an eight-yard touchdown, while Vereen had his coming out party. The Cal-alum totaled 124 yards on 12 touches, including three touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing).
Coach Belichick’s defense contained superstar rusher Arian Foster as well, holding the back just 90 yards on the ground and taking that aspect out of the Houston gameplan.
Another week, another unappreciated effort out of this outstanding New England line. Not only did they aid Patriots rushers total 122 yards on the ground, but Tom Brady was sacked just once, and had plenty of protection all night. JJ Watt made a few good plays for the Houston defense, but was contained throughout.
Unappreciated veteran linebacker always seems to make big, game-changing plays, and Sunday night was no different. Ninkovich ended with four tackles, one tackle for loss, and made a game-changing interception halfway through the third-quarter to stop a Houston drive with New England up 24-13.
The mid-season acquisition was vital in limiting Houston’s other weapon, Andre Johnson. While Johnson finished with eight receptions for 95 yards, Talib rarely allowed the big play, was in single coverage, and finished the game with nine solo tackles. His play allowed Coach Belichick to scheme more creatively, and often send multiple rushers to disrupt the Texans timing.
The kick coverage was an issue from the onset, as New England’s coverage team surrendered a 94-yard return by Daniel Manning to set up Houston with great early field position. Luckily, New England’s D held tall and was down just 3-0 after the opening minute. New England also allowed Manning returns of 35 and 69 yards to Manning, who often flipped field position in favor of Houston.
After racing out to a 38-13 lead, New England defense softened over the final 10 minutes. The team was outscored 15-0, allowed Matt Schaub to quickly race down the field for a few scores in the no huddle offense.
The Patriots will face the Baltimore Ravens in not only a rematch of last season’s epic AFC Championship, but also this season’s 31-30 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore. The game is scheduled to kickoff at 6:30 p.m. in Foxborough. The winner of that game will face the winner of the NFC Championship between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers in Superbowl Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.