FOXBORO -- Three months ago Monday, it was hard to imagine the Patriots being where they are today.
Three months ago Monday, they squandered a 23-10 lead in the final nine minutes of the fourth quarter and lost a 24-23 heartbreaker to the Seahawks in Seattle that dropped their record to 3-3 . . . the first time they'd had a .500 record that late in a season since 2002.
Today -- 10 wins in 11 games later -- they're in a far, far different place.
A three-touchdown game from Shane Vereen sparked the Patriots to a 41-28 divisional round victory over the Texans that put them back in the AFC Championship Game for the second straight year, and the third time in six years. Like last year, they'll be hosting the Ravens at Gillette Stadium, with the winner going on to the Super Bowl.
The Texans suffered a humiliating 42-12 spanking at the hand of the Pats on national television at Gillette last month, and no one really expected them to be able turn around a 30-point defeat. But no one expected another blowout, either, and Houston was able to set a different tone on the opening kickoff. Danieal Manning fielded the kick six yards deep in the end zone and proceeded to take 94 yards downfield before finally being hauled down from behind by Devin McCourty at the Patriots' 12. In so doing, he'd given Houston something -- momentum, and a chance to take a lead -- it had never had in December.
But the Patriots' defense set a tone of its own. Helped by a horrific Matt Schaub overthrow of Andre Johnson on third down, the Pats held the Texans to a 27-yard Shayne Graham field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Regardless, it was obvious this one would play out differently than the last meeting . . . especially when the Patriots' offense, battered by the dual losses of Danny Woodhead (wrist) and Rob Gronkowski (arm) in the first two series, took a bit of time to get untracked.
Untracked they did get, however, and it looked as if they'd gotten things under control when a pair of touchdowns from Vereen (1-yard run, capping a 65-yard drive, and 8-yard pass from Tom Brady, finishing an 80-yard march) sandwiched around a 37-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski put them in front, 17-3, with 3:43 to play in the first half.
Then, however, the Texans did something few teams do: They took control away from the Patriots at the end of a half.
First, after another long (35 yards) kick return by Manning, with 15 yards tacked on for a horse tackle by Gostkowski, Houston went down and scored in 2 minutes and 23 seconds; Arian Foster bulled over from the 1 to finish the drive. The Pats went three and out, the Texans took possession on their own 38 with 24 seconds left, and Schaub was able to move them into position for a 55-yard field goal by Graham as time expired in the half, making it 17-13.
But the Pats regained control for good in the second half. Brady directed a 7-play, 69-yard scoring drive off the kickoff that culminated with an eight-yard TD run by Stevan Ridley and a 24-13 lead. Rob Ninkovich choked off a Texans threat with an interception later in the quarter, and the Pats capitalized with a five-yard TD pass from Brady to Brandon Lloyd, finishing a 6-play, 63-yard march, making it 31-13.
In the fourth quarter, the teams traded long touchdown passes -- 33 yards from Brady to Vereen, and 25 yards from Scaub to DeVier Posey -- before a one-yard scoring pass from Schaub to Foster and a 38-yard field goal by Gostkowski accounted for the 38-28 final.
READ MORE ON CSNNE.com