FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots, bidding to go to their sixth Super Bowl in the past 12 years, are back in the AFC championship game.
Now, they’ll have to get by without star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski, who returned from a broken left arm to play in the regular-season finale after missing five games, re-injured the arm in the first quarter of Sunday’s 41-28 win over the Houston Texans. He will need more surgery.
The club wouldn’t officially confirm the prognosis, but it became common knowledge after the game that Gronkowski was done for the postseason.
New England running back Danny Woodhead (thumb) and rookie defensive end Chandler Jones (ankle) also left with injuries.
Thanks to the Denver Broncos losing to Baltimore on Saturday night, the Patriots will host the Ravens next Sunday night for the conference championship, a rematch of last year’s AFC title game. The Patriots edged the Ravens 23-20 to advance to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the New York Giants. Baltimore could have forced overtime, but Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal in the final seconds.
The Ravens nipped New England 31-30 in Baltimore on Sept. 23.
“I think the two best teams are in the final,” said the Patriots’ Tom Brady, who won his 17th postseason game, an NFL record among quarterbacks.
“We know Baltimore’s tough. We had a great game with them down there this season,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after his team won for the 10th time in the past 11 games. “They’ve gone on the road and won, so I don’t think that’s going to faze them.”
New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said, “(The location) won’t matter come Sunday. We’re going to have to beat a good football team, a team that beat us earlier in the season at their house. You basically have to play your best football against them and make plays.
“This is a team that has a lot of fight in them … and it starts with Ray (Lewis) and what he brings to the team.”
A month after his team hammered the Texans 42-14 on the same field, Belichick picked up his 18th postseason win, moving him past Joe Gibbs into third place on the all-time coaches’ wins list. (Tom Landry had 20, Don Shula finished with 19). Sunday’s rematch with Houston wasn’t much tougher than the Dec. 10 blowout.
Brady completed 25 of 40 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns, one to Brandon Lloyd, the first postseason TD catch of the receiver’s career. Brady became the third quarterback with 40 postseason touchdown passes.
New England running back Shane Vereen caught two touchdown passes (one a 33-yard bomb) and ran for another score, and Stevan Ridley (82 yards on 15 carries) ran for a TD.
“Shane had a great game,” said Brady. “Just a huge growing-up moment for him. Very special.”
Wes Welker, called “not that big or a real athletic guy,” by Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips earlier in the week, caught eight passes for a 131 yards. Included in his total was a spectacular one-handed grab.
“Just a lot of noise,” Welker said of Phillips’ comments.
Stephen Gostkowski kicked two field goals in the win.
The Texans, who were 11-1 after 12 games, lost four of their last six games (including the postseason) for a disappointing end to the best season in their young history. They lost 42-14 when they played at New England on Dec. 10.
“We didn’t play a good game, and they played a very good game,” Houston defensive end J.J. Watt said. “They are moving on, and we are not.”
The Patriots, ahead 17-13 at halftime Sunday, blew the game open after the break. New England led 38-13 when Matt Schaub hit DeVier Posey with a 25-yard touchdown pass that was first called incomplete but was overturned on a challenge. Schaub then hit Arian Foster with a 1-yard touchdown pass and then threw a two-point conversion pass to Andre Johnson.
Schaub finished 34-for-51 for 343 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Houston’s Danieal Manning returned the opening kickoff 94 yards (he also had returns of 69 and 35 yards), but the Texans had to settle for a field goal and what turned out to be their only lead of the game.
Vereen’s 1-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter capped a six-play, 65-yard drive and put New England on top for good.
On their next possession, the Patriots got to the Houston 16-yard line but had to settle for a second-quarter field goal after Lloyd was flagged for throwing the ball at the official after an incompletion. The questionable call put New England back to the 31, but Gostkowski’s 37-yard kick extended the lead to 10-3.
After Brady threw an 8-yard scoring pass to Vereen, Shayne Graham kicked a 55-yard field goal to end the first half, bringing the Texas within 17-13.
NOTES: Posey reportedly suffered a torn Achilles tendon with 6:07 left. He exited on a cart. … New England defensive end Ron Ninkovich, who left the final regular-season game with a hip injury, returned to action and had an interception in the third quarter. … Texans tight end Owen Daniels caught nine passes for 81 yards, while Johnson had eight receptions for 95 yards. … Game-time temperature was a balmy 51 degrees with 87 percent humidity, hardly New England weather in the middle of January. … The Patriots had a moment of silence before the game for long-time equipment manager Donny Brocher, who died recently. … Watt, who was credited with a half-sack, spit on the Patriots’ logo before the game. He later said, “I do it every game, home or away. I go out there, spit a little bit, wipe my feet off and stretch.” … Schaub made his first career road playoff start. … Welker has made at least six receptions in all seven postseason games with the Patriots. … Brady, recording his fifth 300-yard postseason game, needs 227 yards to pass Brett Favre for the all-time NFL playoff record. His first completion Sunday was the 500th of his postseason career. He broke a tie with Joe Montana for the lead in postseason wins by a quarterback. … Houston finished 8-0 this season when Foster ran for more than 100 yards, including the 140 he gained against Cincinnati in the wild-card round. Foster ran for 90 yards on 22 carries Sunday. He has 515 rushing yards in four postseason games, tying him with Terrell Davis for the most yards in a player’s first four playoff games. … Vereen is the third Patriot to score three touchdowns in a postseason game. … Foster has 515 rushing yards in four postseason games, tying him with Terrell Davis for the most yards in a player’s first four playoff games. … The Texans are 2-2 under coach Gary Kubiak in postseason play.
NFL NOTEBOOK: The Cleveland Browns appear to be close to hiring two assistant coaches with ties to the Chargers as their coordinators.
Former Chargers head coach Norv Turner looks to be the choice as the Browns’ offensive coordinator, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which also reported that Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano could be in line to guide the Browns’ defense.
The Kansas City Chiefs also were interested in speaking with Pagano after new head coach Andy Reid came on board, but the Chiefs subsequently hired New York Jets linebackers coach Bob Sutton as their defensive coordinator.
The Chiefs plan to interview fired New York Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano for the offensive line job, according to ESPN.
— The Oakland Raiders interviewed Mike Martz for their offensive coordinator job and Juan Castillo for their offensive line opening, according to reports.
The Raiders also have had discussions with NFL executive vice president of operations Ray Anderson about the possibility of him taking an executive front office position with the Raiders, ESPN.com reported.
— The Ravens’ overtime victory over the Broncos on Saturday night drew the highest ratings for an AFC divisional playoff game since 1994.
The preliminary national rating had 20.1 percent of households in the United States tuned into the game, an increase of 9 percent over the Saturday AFC divisional game the previous year between the New England Patriots and Denver in prime time.
It also was CBS’ most watched Saturday divisional playoff game on record since 1987 with 35.5 million viewers.