FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Houston Texans vowed this game would be different than their embarrassing, 28-point loss to the Patriots in the regular season.
Only the margin of victory changed.
The Texans mounted enough offense to avert a repeat of the Dec. 10 blowout that signaled they weren't ready to compete with the defending AFC champions. With a second chance and a spot in the conference title game at stake, they could do little more than keep it close for a half in a 41-28 loss in New England on Sunday.
"I think every team in the NFL knows how good that opponent is," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "If you're going to achieve something, you're going to have to go through them at some point. This organization will keep battling to do that."
Danieal Manning returned the opening kickoff 94 yards, but he was brought down at the Patriots 12 and the Texans settled for a field goal. Houston scored 10 points in the final minutes of the first half — but still trailed 17-13.
And, after Matt Schaub moved Houston into New England territory in the fourth quarter with a chance to pull within a touchdown, his floater was intercepted by defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich.
That essentially clinched the game for the Patriots and sent them to their seventh AFC championship game since the 2001 season.
"There's no good landing in this league unless you're playing a few weeks from now," Kubiak said. "Every landing's a crash."
The Texans were 11-1 with the best record in football before losing to New England and then again in their final two games. They lost on the second weekend of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
"It's always difficult when your season ends unless you're the last team standing," Schaub said. "It's difficult to stand here with the realization that your season's over.
Tom Brady got his 17th postseason victory — the most for any quarterback in NFL history, throwing for three touchdown passes to lead New England (13-4) to an AFC title game rematch with the Baltimore Ravens. The two-time NFL MVP completed 25 of 40 pass for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
"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. Wes Welker caught six passes for 120 yards in the first half and finished with eight catches for 131 yards.
That helped make up for the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who re-injured an arm that kept him out of five games in the regular season, and running back Danny Woodhead.
"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."
Vereen scored the Patriots' first two TDs on a 1-yard run and an 8-yard pass, capping 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 Brady's childhood hero, Joe Montana (45).
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