Patriots handle Texans, as Falcons win a thriller

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Patriots handle Texans, as Falcons win a thriller

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Quarterback Tom Brady celebrates after the Patriots scored a touchdown on a run by Shane Vereen during the first quarter against the Houston Texans on Sunday. [REUTERS/YONHAP]

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - As a kid in the Bay Area, Tom Brady idolized Joe Montana. Now, he’s surpassed his hero for postseason wins.

Brady got his 17th, the most for any quarterback, in New England’s 41-28 AFC divisional victory over Houston on Sunday. If Brady can lead the Patriots past Baltimore in next weekend’s conference title game, then win the Super Bowl, he’ll equal the 49ers’ Hall of Famer for NFL championships.

Brady has guided the Patriots to five Super Bowls, winning the first three; Montana was four for four in the big game, playing for Brady’s hometown team.

“I grew up a 49ers fans,” Brady said. “Joe Montana and Steve Young .?.?. those guys are in another class.”

In the other playoff game on Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons topped the Seattle Seahawks 30-28.

For the Patriots, 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.

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.

That boost from Vereen offset the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) and RB Danny Woodhead (thumb) in the first quarter.

In Atlanta, the Falcons finally showed they could win a playoff game.

After a meltdown in the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan completed two long passes and Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds remaining, lifting the NFC’s top seed to a stunning 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

“Wow!’’ said Falcons coach Mike Smith, summing up this classic as well as anyone could.

Atlanta (14-3) squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, falling behind for the first time all day when Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left and Ryan Longwell knocked through the extra point for a 28-27 lead.

Ryan hooked up with Harry Douglas on a 29-yard pass in front of the Falcons bench, and Smith quickly signaled a timeout. Then Ryan went down the middle to his favorite target, Tony Gonzalez.

Gonzalez hauled in the 19-yard throw, and Smith called his final timeout with 13 seconds remaining. He sent Bryant in for the field goal try.

The Seahawks called time just before the ball was snapped, and Bryant’s kick sailed right of the upright. That turned out to be nothing more than practice. The next one was right down the middle as Bryant took off in the other direction, pumping his fist before he was mobbed by his teammates. AP

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