FOXBOROUGH — The rematch is on.
The Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship game for the seventh time of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Era Sunday after dispatching the Houston Texans, 41-28, in their divisional-round game.
With the Ravens upsetting Denver Saturday, Baltimore once again will head to Gillette Stadium to face the Patriots for the chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Last year’s AFC title game was a memorable one, with now-departed Sterling Moore knocking two would-be touchdown passes out of the arms of Ravens receivers and kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yard field goal that would have forced overtime.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Patriots cocaptain Matthew Slater said of getting back to the conference championship. “We’ve worked so hard to get back. We’re back where we wanted to be, where we were hoping to be.”
But the Patriots’ win Sunday did not come without a couple of losses. Most significantly, a league source confirmed tight end Rob Gronkowski is out for the remainder of the season after reinjuring the left arm he broke earlier this season. Gronkowski landed on the arm going after a sideline pass in the first half; he will need another surgery.
Versatile Danny Woodhead (thumb) was injured on the Patriots’ first play of the game and did not return, and defensive lineman Chandler Jones suffered another ankle injury after twisting awkwardly on a goal-line play. He also did not return, though he remained on the sideline.
It was a breakout game for running back Shane Vereen, who had 124 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. The second-year running back had limited contributions to that point, slowed by injuries.
“Shane had a great game,” Brady said. “Really just a huge growing-up moment for him, so it was very special. It was for everybody. There were a lot of guys that made a lot of plays. We needed it.”
The highlight of Vereen’s performance came early in the fourth quarter. The Texans, normally conservative, went for it twice on fourth down inside their territory, converting the first time but not the second, giving the Patriots the ball 33 yards from the end zone.
And in one snap, they had their final touchdown of the day: Brady threw to Vereen, who made a great catch near the goal line and stayed inbounds just long enough to get the ball inside the pylon.
The Patriots had said all week that they expected to see a different Texans team than the one they saw Dec. 10 during New England’s 42-14 takedown of the then-top-seeded team in the conference. And they did — Houston scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull within 10 points, but the clock was not on the Texans’ side.
A 38-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski with 1:14 to play sealed the deal for New England.
“It’s good to be able to play in the AFC Championship game next week; today was a good game for us,” Belichick said. “We had a bunch of guys step up today. It wasn’t perfect, there are certainly things we can do better, but it’s a good win. Proud of the players, they had a good week of practice, did a good job preparing for this game.”
The offensive line once again did a good job containing Houston’s J.J. Watt, who was credited with four tackles, one for a loss, a half-sack, and a quarterback hit.
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said in the days leading up to the game that his unit would do what it always does — shut down the run and make the Patriots beat them with the pass.
But Stevan Ridley averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 15 attempts, and as a team the Patriots got 122 rushing yards — the 13th time in the team’s 13 wins this season that it topped the century mark on the ground.
The flaw in Phillips’s game plan was that making Brady beat you isn’t a gamble you’ll often win. Playoff-hardened as they come, Brady was 25 for 40 for 344 yards, with three touchdown passes and no interceptions.
In the two games against Houston, he had seven touchdowns and zero picks.
Brady has 17 career postseason victories, surpassing his childhood idol, Joe Montana, for most by a QB.
“I love playing and I love competing,” Brady said of setting the record. “I love being a part of this team and this organization. It’s a lot of mentally tough guys and I think I’ve just been fortunate to play on some great teams over the years. I very much appreciate that and I never take that for granted.”
The last time the Patriots played, in the regular-season finale against Miami, Rob Ninkovich limped off the field with a hip injury. But he missed just one practice, during the bye week, and by Friday was removed from the team’s injury report.
If there were any lingering questions about his health, Ninkovich certainly answered them with 4:20 left in the third quarter. With Houston in New England territory and facing third and 8, Matt Schaub threw for James Casey over the middle, but his pass floated a bit.
Ninkovich showed his hops, leaping for the ball and pulling in the interception.
It was the type of timely play Ninkovich has made all season, though he had no answer for how he makes the plays.
“That seems to happen for me since I was a kid — high school, junior college, college,” Ninkovich said. “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but I guess I’ll keep doing it.”
The offense gladly took the turnover, and quickly turned it into a touchdown.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez, who looked the best he’s looked since his Week 2 ankle injury, had a 14-yard gain on second down, and Ridley found the hole between Nate Solder and Logan Mankins for a 23-yard gain.
The 5-yard touchdown pass went to Brandon Lloyd, playing in his first career playoff game 10 years into his NFL career.