When Brady set the Patriots off on their first scoring drive Sunday, one which ended on a one-yard run by Vereen, Gronkowski was on the sideline, dealing with what appeared to be a problem with the left arm he broke earlier in the season. He never returned. Brady was unfazed. He hit three different receivers on that drive, in which he worked behind center and from the shotgun. The Texans reeled.
On the Patriots’ second touchdown drive, Brady concentrated on his favorite target, Wes Welker, that one-time castoff in San Diego and Miami. In the Patriots’ 42-14 pasting of Houston Dec. 10 — a Monday night embarrassment for the Texans, who wanted to consider themselves in the conversation as the AFC’s best team — Welker caught only three balls. Did that mean the Texans were unaware of the 115 others he caught throughout the season?
Welker’s sixth catch of the first half went for 47 yards, and on the next play, Brady found Vereen on a screen. He waltzed in from eight yards out, and New England — sometimes a Ferrari, sometimes a bulldozer — built a comfortable 17-3 lead.
Only an odd series of events just before the half put New England’s whole operation on hold. First, Houston returner Danieal Manning had his second long return, and a penalty gave the Texans the ball in New England territory. Arian Foster, Houston’s stalwart back, then used just two carries to cover 40 yards, and his one-yard touchdown run pulled the Texans within 17-10.
That might not have been unsettling to the Foxboro faithful had Brady managed to kill the final 75 seconds of the half. Brady threw incomplete passes on second and third downs and Houston forced a punt. On the half’s last play, Houston’s Shayne Graham knocked through a 55-yard field goal, the longest of his career, and the Patriots’ dominance had been deleted. They led just 17-13.
But that only set up the second half. The Patriots’ first drive, on which Brady completed four straight passes, ended in Stevan Ridley’s touchdown run. Their third drive, on which Brady went 3 for 3, ended with the touchdown pass to Lloyd. The lead was 31-13, and it grew to 38-13 on Vereen’s final score.
The Texans managed a pair of late touchdowns, but the histrionics that played out over the weekend in Denver, San Francisco and Atlanta would not resurface here. Tom Brady is back in the playoffs. He has his clipboard. He has his focus. He is back at work.