FOXBOROUGH, Mass. 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.
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.
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, Tom 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.
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.
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.
The Texans couldn t measure up.
NOTES: New England has played in eight AFC championship games, going 7-1, including 5-1 with Brady and Belichick. ... Brady threw for 344 yards, and Schaub threw for 343. Schaub s TD passes were 25 yards to DeVier Posey and 1 to Foster. ... Foster had 90 yards rushing, the first time in four playoff games he did not reach 100. But his 515 tie for most in a player s first four playoff games with Denver s Terrell Davis.