A playoff win could not get any more bittersweet.
The New England Patriots dominated the Houston Texans for long stretches of their AFC Divisional Playoff game to overcome a scrappy effort by J.J. Watt, Arian Foster and company, but suffered a devastating loss when Tight End Rob Gronkowski rebroke his left forearm.
Gronkowski will have surgery tomorrow and is now out for the season.
But for this game at least, they were fine without him.
Running Back Shane Vereen turned in a career performance, scoring once on the ground and twice through the air as the New England Patriots thumped the Houston Texans 41-28. New England also got scores from Stevan Ridley and Brandon Lloyd and kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed two field goals for the defending AFC Champs.
New England now will host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game next Sunday night.
Tom Brady turned in a spectacular passing display, throwing for 344 yards and 3 touchdowns including a pretty 33 yard bomb to Vereen. Brady has never been so sharp on his downfield throws as he was against the Texans, as he also hit Wes Welker in stride for a 47 yard strike that set up another touchdown and consistently converted third downs with sharp throws.
Stevan Ridley ran for 82 tough yards and got the carries down the stretch that sealed the win. Vereen chipped in 41 electrifying yards and also caught 5 balls for 83 yards and the three scores.
Houston’s Arian Foster carried 22 times for 90 yards, but was largely held in check, as half of his yardage came on a late drive with the Patriots comfortably ahead, while Quarterback Matt Schaub threw 51 times, completing 34 passes 343 yards with two touchdowns and one drive killing interception.
It was a game of spurts, as New England raced out to a 17-3 lead but Houston closed the gap to four at the half. The Patriots came out of the locker room for the second half and drove the ball down for Ridley’s 8 yard scoring run and a 24-13 lead. The New England defense held the Texans scoreless for the third quarter and well into the 4th while Brady was hitting Lloyd for a 5 yard score and then threw the 33 yard dagger to Vereen to put the score out of reach at 38-13.
Schaub led two late scoring drives, but the outcome was never in doubt.
The loss of Gronkowski obviously hurts the Patriots, but New England may be the only team in the NFL that could lose such a talent and still be overstocked in offensive weaponry.
Wes Welker caught 8 balls for 131 yards, Tight End Aaron Hernadez had 6 for 85 and Lloyd hauled in 5 throws for 32 yards and the one score, and coupled with the production in the running game easily outclassed a game but overmatched Texans’ defense.
The Patriots defense wasn’t able to reach Schaub, but pressured him plenty, forcing a half dozen quick throws that landed nowhere near his receivers. When he did complete balls, the Patriots defensive backs were draped all over them to limit their yards after the catch as Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard returned to the New England lineup with swagger after missing the past couple of games with injuries.
Safety Steve Gregory turned in a solid game, logging 10 tackles and always seeming to be in the right spot. His battery mate Devin McCourty was also in on some huge plays, but none as big as chasing down Texan’s kick returner Danieal Manning on the opening kickoff. preventing a touchdown as the Patriots defense was able to force the Texans to settle for a field goal.
If there was an area in which New England could look for some improvement, it is in kickoff coverage, as Manning broke three long returns to set up Schaub with short fields and putting the Patriots defense in a hole to begin those drives.
A solid win in the books, the Patriots now turn their focus on a Baltimore Ravens’ team that upset the Denver Broncos on Saturday afternoon in an epic instant classic, the winner advancing to the Super Bowl.