Tom Brady made history. Now it's his coach's turn.
The Patriots' quarterback added to a string of postseason success that stretches back more than a decade, earning his 17th playoff win to break a tie with his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, for most by a quarterback.
After New England's 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday night, Bill Belichick needs two more playoff wins to match Tom Landry's NFL high of 20. If Belichick gets there this season he'd also tie Chuck Noll for most Super Bowl championships by a coach with four.
First, the Baltimore Ravens stand in the way next Sunday in a rematch of last year's AFC title game.
"Right now our focus is just (being) happy to win this game and get on to Baltimore," Belichick said. "We can reflect back on some other years some other time."
Sunday was Brady's day to reach a milestone. His first postseason win came in the 2001 season, which ended with his first Super Bowl title. Now he's guiding the NFL's most productive offense into his sixth AFC championship game in his 13 seasons.
"He's our leader and we all follow him," said Belichick, the team's real leader. "We all respect him and he led the team today, along with a lot of other guys. But he certainly did his job, as he's done many times before."
It won't take Belichick long to put Sunday's victory out of his mind, impressive as it was. Brady also is ready to move on to the next challenge.
"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 fitting."
The Texans (13-5) certainly don't after losing four of their last six games, starting with a 42-14 rout by the Patriots (13-4) on Dec. 10 on the same field where their season ended.
"There's no good landing in this business unless you're playing a few weeks from now," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "Other than that, the landing's a crash."
Brady threw for three scores and 344 yards and seldom-used running back Shane Vereen, seeing more action because Danny Woodhead hurt his thumb on the Patriots' first offensive play, had three touchdowns. Wes Welker had eight catches for a career postseason-high 131 yards and the defense held Arian Foster to 90 yards rushing, his first sub-100-yard playoff game in the four he's had.
The Patriots also overcame the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who broke the left arm he originally broke on Nov. 18 in a 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts and needs season-ending surgery, a person with knowledge of the injury told The Associated Press.
"It's a bummer to lose anybody," Brady said, "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."
Gronkowski missed the first game against the Texans, one of five he sat out after his first injury, and it didn't matter.
The Texans were more competitive on Sunday and trailed only 17-13 at halftime as Foster scored on a 1-yard run and Shayne Graham kicked a 55-yard field goal in the last 1:11 before intermission.
But the Patriots scored on two of their first three series in the third quarter on Stevan Ridley's 8-yard run and Brady's 5-yard pass to Brandon Lloyd that made it 31-13.
"We came out in the second half and didn't perform," NFL sacks leader J.J. Watt said. "Losing. I can't stand it. I can't stand any aspect of it. The taste in your mouth is terrible."
Lloyd scored just six plays after Rob Ninkovich ended a Houston threat with an interception that gave New England the ball at its 37-yard line.
The Patriots needed just one play after taking over on downs early in the fourth quarter, scoring on an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch by Vereen for a 33-yard touchdown and a 38-13 advantage.
The third-string back finished with 124 total yards — 83 on five receptions and 41 on seven carries.
"I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play," Vereen said. "I come into the game ready to go."
The Texans were.
On the very first play, Danieal Manning returned the kickoff 94 yards before being hauled down by Devin McCourty at the Patriots 12. But all the Texans could get out of that was a 27-yard field goal by Shayne Graham.
"That was a huge play by Devin to really end up saving (four) points," Belichick said.
The Patriots punted on their first two series then took the lead for good on Vereen's 1-yard run following Brady's consecutive completions of 13 yards to Ridley, 25 to Vereen and 14 to Aaron Hernandez.
The Texans offense got going again in the fourth quarter, but it was too late. Matt Schaub's touchdown passes of 25 yards to DeVier Posey and 1 yard to Foster in the last 12 minutes just made the margin of defeat closer.
"It's difficult to sit here (with) the realization that our season is over," Schaub said.
The Patriots' season continues against a team it beat in last year's AFC title game 23-20, but lost to in Week 3 this season 31-30 after leading 30-21 with less than 5 minutes left.
The Ravens advanced with a 38-35 double-overtime win in Denver and will be on the road again, trying to keep Belichick from tying Don Shula with 19 postseason victories. A win would be the 18th for Brady and Belichick together since the Patriots drafted the quarterback in 2000. It also would put him two up on Montana.
"I grew up a 49ers fan," Brady said. "Joe Montana and Steve Young ... those guys are in another class.
"I love playing, I love competing, I love being a part of this organization," he said. "I think I've just been fortunate to play on some great teams over the years. I never take it for granted."
NOTES: The Patriots are 14-3 at home in the playoffs, but just 3-2 in their last five games. ... The Texans were eliminated in their second playoff game for the second straight year after going their first nine seasons without a postseason appearance. ... Schaub threw for 343 yards, one less than Brady. ... Defensive backs Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory led the Patriots with 10 tackles each.
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