Vereen picks good time for breakout game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Running back Shane Vereen scored three touchdowns as the New England Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game with a 41-28 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday.

But it wasn't quite how the Patriots drew it up. On their first offensive play, running back Danny Woodhead went down with a left thumb injury, and it was Vereen -- who has been used sparingly since being drafted in the second round in 2011 -- who stepped in and logged a career-high 38 snaps.

"We had a whole plan built for him and Woody," quarterback Tom Brady said, referring to Rob Gronkowski, who also was injured in the game, and Woodhead. "We run the first series of the game and all those plans change."

Vereen made his impact early, scoring on a 1-yard run late in the first quarter, and following it up with an 8-yard catch in the second quarter, putting the Patriots ahead 17-3.

"I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play," Vereen said. "I come into the game ready to go, and if my number is called, I do the best I can."

While Woodhead's injury appears less serious than Gronkowski's -- Woodhead returned the sideline for the final three quarters -- coach Bill Belichick was prescient on Wednesday when he said players would need to be ready to adjust on the fly when a game plan goes awry.

"It’s about being prepared to deal with whatever it is we have to deal with on Sunday and going out there and executing it well," Belichick said Wednesday.

And after the game, the NFL's longest-tenured head coach didn't need to say he told you so.

"These kinds of games, you never really know when the dial spins, where it’s going to wind up, who it’s going to end up on," Belichick said. "Those guys were prepared. Offensively we were able to move the ball, put up some points. It’s a credit to everybody to be ready."

Following a failed Texans fourth-down conversion early in the fourth quarter, Brady lined up the offense with Vereen split wide to the left. The Texans had a single deep safety, and Brady did not hesitate to chuck it up to Vereen along the sideline, who hauled in a 33-yard touchdown pass. Vereen finished with five catches for 83 yards to go with 41 yards on seven carries.

"We used some different formations to try to move some people around," Belichick said. "Obviously it's something we worked on during the week. When Tom saw matchups he liked out there, he was able to take advantage of it."

"It was a play we put in earlier this week, and we (ran) it a couple of times," Vereen said. "When my number was called, I was just able to get open."

Vereen, a 2011 second-round pick, largely has been overshadowed in his first two seasons by Stevan Ridley, who was drafted a round later. But that wasn't the case on Sunday, when Ridley contributed 82 yards on 15 carries but Vereen had a breakout game when it mattered most.

"It's a huge difference. Last year I wasn't even playing in the playoffs," Vereen said. "This year I was able to make an impact."

"Really just a huge growing up moment for him," Brady said. "Very special."