FOXBOROUGH -- In beating the Texans to make it to the AFC Championship, the Patriots are right where many expected them to be.
So there was no surprise in seeing them finish the game strong, winning 41-28, and forging ahead to play the Ravens next week. Unfortunately this game will be marked for the injuries the Patriots suffered and not for the dominating win.
Here are five takeaways.
1) Gronkowski, Woodhead, Jones injured -- While the severity of Danny Woodhead (left thumb) and Chandler Jones's (ankle) injuries are unknown, we know Rob Gronkowski is done for the season. Gronkowski broke his left forearm again, diving for a pass in the first quarter of Sunday's game. He left the game in a sling and will undergo surgery. Losing Gronkowski is not a deadly blow. The team went 4-1 in games he missed after breaking his arm against the Colts in Week 11. He came back in Week 17 hesitant to engage defenders, protecting his left arm a little too much for someone cleared to play. But two weeks later, he entered Sunday's game against the Texans looking like the Gronkowski of old. And then he was taken away, much too soon. Michael Hoomanawanui filled in ably for Gronk, but the team loses a dynamic threat. Hoomanawanui is a great blocker and has surprisingly good hands, but he isn't the same imposing figure as Gronkowski. The matchup problems that the Patriots once enjoyed with Gronkowski in the lineup are now gone and that should worry fans when considering the tough defenses that remain in Baltimore as well San Francisco and Atlanta. Remember, he was a decoy in Super Bowl XLVI. He can't even do that now.
"It's hard to replace a player like him because he's a freak of nature," said Aaron Hernandez. "Everyone has to step up and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling."
2) Shane Vereen bounces back in a big way -- It's been a month since Vereen has seen significant action. He had a crucial fumble against the 49ers in Week 15 and had seen his snaps decrease significantly. On Sunday, he stepped in when Woodhead injured his left thumb on the Patriots' first offensive play of the game. Woodhead is the Patriots' no-huddle running back, a role that Vereen was primed to take over at the beginning of the season. But because of injuries and his own inconsistency, Vereen found himself playing mop-up duty over the course of the season. Not on Sunday. With a full game to show off his talents and a national audience watching, the former Cal star totaled 124 yards and three touchdowns to steal the spotlight. He had five receptions for 83 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
"Shane had a great game," said Tom Brady. "Really just a huge growing up moment for him, so very special. It was for everybody. There were a lot of guys that made a lot of plays. We needed it."
Earlier in the week, Vereen said he looked up to Walter Payton as a running back. After Sunday's his performance, there may be young New Englanders looking up to him. And many others expecting more from him.
3) How big of a deal was it that J.J. Watt spit on the Patriots logo? -- Not much, as it turns out. The All-Pro defensive end for the Houston Texans was just getting warmed up for the game, not entirely oblivious to where he was spitting, but unaware he was offending anyone.
"I do that every game, home or away,” Watt said. "I go out to midfield, I jog out there, spit a little bit, wipe my feet off then go through my stretches. No drama there, that's 100 percent what I do every game, home or away."
No need to take offense if none was intended.
4) The game shifted after the first drive -- The Texans' Danieal Manning had a field day on special teams. He returned four kickoffs for 216 yards, an average of 54 a pop. After the Texans won the coin toss and elected to receive to begin the game, Manning took the opening kick and returned it 94 yards to the Patriots' 12-yard line. This was the fast start the Texans needed to keep up with the Patriots' No. 1 offense. But alas, they were not ready to seize the moment. Fullback James Casey dropped a touchdown pass from Matt Schaub over the middle. The Texans settled for a field goal, but really they surrendered an opportunity to put the Patriots in a catch-up situation. It could have changed the dynamic of the game. Now, it's just another one of those what-if things the Texans will ponder over vacation.
5) Tom Brady is the all-time leader in postseason wins for a QB -- Brady (17) has surpassed 49ers legend Joe Montanta (16) in career playoff wins, adding to his own illustrious career that will surely end with a bust in Canton, Ohio. As a San Mateo, Calif., native, and a guy who rooted for the 49ers and Montana as a kid, it's tough for him to really express what it means to him in the middle of a playoff run. But he deserves all the praise thrown his way. If Brady makes it to his sixth Super Bowl, he will have a chance (again) to tie Montana in Super Bowl titles. Montana has four, Brady has three. But even without a fourth championship, Brady is arguably the better of the two quarterbacks, and in turn arguably the best quarterback in NFL history. Another championship will cement the argument for Brady.