NFL playoffs: Patriots down Texans, face Ravens next

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady idolized Joe Montana as a kid in the Bay Area. Now, he’s surpassed his hero for postseason wins.

Brady got his 17th, the most for any quarterback, in New England’s 41-28 AFC divisional victory over Houston on Sunday. If Brady can lead the Patriots past Baltimore in next weekend’s conference title game, then win the Super Bowl, he’ll equal the 49ers’ Hall of Famer for NFL championships.

Brady has guided the Patriots to five Super Bowls, winning the first three; Montana was 4 for 4 in the big game, playing for Brady’s hometown team.

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

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, but got the usual outstanding performance from Wes Welker, his favorite target the last six years. The AFC’s top receiver with 118 catches this season, Welker looked like 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 hope I am around for a few more years,” the 35-year-old Brady said. “I love playing, I love competing …”

The boost from Vereen offset the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) and RB 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. 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.

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