All week, the talk was that the AFC Divisional rematch between the Texans and Patriots would look nothing like the 42-14 Week 14 blowout that left Houston reeling and New England in a familiar last-season position: playing well as the playoffs approached.
On Sunday night, the Patriots rolled again, this time 41-28, and the Texans were powerless to do anything about it. Tom Brady's numbers looked eerily similar to the first meeting; in December, he was 21 of 35 for 296 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs. In the postseason reunion, he was 25 of 40 for 344 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs. Put another way: Houston's defense, which was one of the league's best units early in the year, had no answers for Brady, Welker or the Pats' 2012 running game. Wes Welker led all receivers with 131 yards on eight catches, and Aaron Hernandez added six catches for 85 yards. Meanwhile, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combined for 123 rushing yards (82 and 41 yards, respectively) and a rushing touchdown apiece (all told, Vereen had two receiving touchdowns, too).
As usual, coach Bill Belichick was measured in his post-game comments.
"It’s good to be able to play in the AFC Championship Game next week. I’m really proud of our players; I thought they worked hard all year. Today was a big win for us," he said. "It wasn’t perfect and there were certainly a lot of things we can do better, but it was a good win. I’m happy for the players. I think they really earned it. They had a good week of practice. I thought they really did a good job preparing for this game. It was good to see us make enough plays here to win."
But it wasn't all smiles and high-fives in the locker room after the game; the Patriots lost tight-end Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the postseason after he re-injured his broken arm midway through the first quarter. The team also lost running back Danny Woodhead on Sunday.
"Hooman (Michael Hoomanawanui) and Shane (Vereen) stepped in there and both did a good job for us. Shane obviously made a lot of big plays, but Hooman did a great job too, as he’s been doing for the last month. These kinds of games, you never really know when the dial spins, where it’s going to wind up, who it’s going to end up on. Those guys were prepared. Offensively we were able to move the ball, put up some points. It’s a credit to everybody to be ready. "
Brady said the Pats' "had a whole plan built for (Gronkowski and Woodhead)."
"We run the first series of the game and all those plans change," the quarterback admitted. "I think a little of it was ‘What are we going to do now? How are we going to adjust?’ But we seemed to settle in there midway through the first quarter and put together a pretty good game. Obviously it’s a bummer to lose anybody, but someone of Rob’s importance or Danny’s importance, we need guys to step in and fill the void, whether it’s this game or any game after."
But that's been the Patriots' M.O. for as long as Belichick and Brady have been together. Yes, there's the two most important cogs in this well-oiled machine, but the ancillary parts are also critical to their success. And Sunday, against a team that seemed overmatched from the start, it was enough.
Come next Sunday, however, the Ravens won't be intimated about returning to Gillette Stadium, where they feel like last year's trip to the Super Bowl was ripped from them (thanks to Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff).
Brady was asked if he was disappointed that there won't be a Brady-Manning rematch this week.
"I think the two best teams are in the finals," he said. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting. We played them early in the year; they got us. We blew a pretty big lead there at the end. We’re going to have to play our best game this week."
And that's how it should be.