Patriots, Tom Brady outclass Texans

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- So it turns out the New England Patriots' initial shellacking of the Houston Texans wasn't a fluke, as their defensive leader J.J. Watt so ardently insisted in advance of Sunday's divisional playoff game.

And yes, it turns out Watt's team was nearly as impotent against the Patriots as Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy so famously declared one week ago.

So if the overmatched Matt Schaub is a tomato can, what does that make Tom Brady?

Lobster bisque.

With cream.

The Patriots rose to the top along with their redoubtable quarterback against the vaunted Houston defense for the second time in as many tries this season. Brady amassed 344 yards, three touchdowns and a slew of new milestones en route to a 41-28 victory that ensures the Patriots' season rolls on.

Brady now has the most playoff victories in NFL history among quarterbacks (17, passing childhood idol Joe Montana). He has the highest postseason winning percentage (17-6) and became just the third QB, joining Montana and Brett Favre, with 40 or more postseason touchdown passes.

In doing so, Brady salvaged some mojo for the "old guard" quarterbacks, who absorbed a major hit during this divisional playoff weekend.

Fellow Super Bowl heros Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning looked on helplessly as their teams' fortunes circled the drain on Saturday. Meanwhile, 25-year-old San Francisco sensation Colin Kaepernick and former Boston College star (now Falcons quarterback) "Matty Ice" Ryan staked their claim as the Next Big Thing with clutch performances in leading their teams to victory.

Conventional wisdom suggests that if a team wants to win a Super Bowl, it needs an elite quarterback.

The Patriots can comfortably check off that requirement on the dossier, along with an accompanying "reliable receiver." Brady's friend, the irrepressible Wes Welker, grabbed eight catches for 131 yards while absorbing a series of bone-rattling hits that made even his teammates cringe. With all the sobering data emerging regarding hits to the head, one has to worry about what the future holds for the fearless Welker, who manages to hang onto the ball no matter how hard he gets croaked.

"He's unbelievable," Matthew Slater said. "Probably one of the toughest football players I've ever seen. He takes some shots out there and you go, 'Oh! Is he going to get up?' But he does. Every time."

You think Brady and Welker want another crack at the Super Bowl? Welker's "drop" (or Brady's poor throw, depending on your perspective) against the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI haunted both players for months. When the 2012 campaign began, they declared the past was behind them. It was a new season with new hope and new resolve. They are now one game away from getting a chance to alter their shared legacy on the biggest stage.

"Of course they want another shot," offensive lineman Donald Thomas said. "We all do. They're two of our more vocal leaders, so we hear it from them."

New England has rarely struggled to score during the Brady era, but the explosion from running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley on Sunday was a pleasant added feature to the attack.

It's the defense that has given the pundits pause. Aside from what linebacker Jerrod Mayo termed "a hiccup" in the waning minutes of the second quarter, when the Patriots gave up two scores, they too submitted a playoff-worthy performance.

Texans special teamer Danieal Manning stunned the raucous Foxborough crowd by busting the opening kickoff 94 yards to the New England 12-yard line, but the defense hunkered down and held Houston to a field goal. That set the tone for the evening.

"That was huge," said Mayo, who recorded seven tackles, including two for a loss. "We set our minds that no matter what anyone else was doing, the defense had to make sure we did our job."

Mayo is a loyal Belichick disciple who normally dutifully espouses the party line. Ask him about anything, and he's bound to say, "We can always improve in all phases of the game."

Yet, when asked about Watt, who spit on the Patriots logo during pregame warmups and rankled New England with his declaration that the 42-14 Patriots win in Week 14 was "a fluke," Mayo uncharacteristically (and delightfully) bristled.

"I really don't pay attention to him," Mayo said. "I really don't care what he has to say. We're going to continue to work tomorrow -- and I don't know what those guys are going to do."

While the Texans head home in the wake of another disheartening postseason letdown, New England hosts the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday in a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game. The Ravens are a physical, smashmouth team that nobody, not even a cocky Globe scribe with naturally curly hair, is going to call a tomato can.

The Harbaugh brothers have proven to be formidable opponents for Brady, coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Two of New England losses this season were to Baltimore (John) and San Francisco (Jim). Both teams jammed the Patriots' receivers at the line and beat them silly.

That is a daunting proposition when you consider the three receivers who dressed on Sunday were the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker, the 6-foot, 200-pound Brandon Lloyd and the 5-foot-9 Deion Branch, who is listed at 195 pounds but only weighs that when he's carrying Vince Wilfork's and Kyle Love's shoulder pads.

It doesn't help that the comeback of lethal weapon Rob Gronkowski has been aborted. Gronk caught a ball out of bounds early in the first quarter, fell on his previously broken left arm and left the field in obvious pain. He didn't return and is done for the year. The status of running back Danny Woodhead (thumb) is in doubt.

Think Baltimore will be up for this one? Last year's excruciating AFC championship loss in Foxborough was one of the lowest moments in Ravens history. You may recall Lee Evans dropped a touchdown pass and kicker Billy Cundiff muffed a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the game. The Ravens walked out of Foxborough feeling cheated.

And then there's the ongoing Ray Lewis Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show. Pack up the babies and the grab the old ladies cuz Ray is calling it quits.

Lewis's impending retirement has turned into a weekly infomercial on Reverend Ray. There's no doubt Lewis is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, perhaps the best ever at his position, but the storyline already has been overdone. Be prepared to be reminded incessantly in the days ahead that every game could be his last.

Never mind that Lewis is no longer an elite player -- he's motivated, motivational and milking his swan song for all it's worth.

After the Ravens eliminated the Denver Broncos on Saturday night, Peyton Manning brought his family to Baltimore's locker room to wish Lewis well.

Surely Brady will be happy to do the same -- once he punches his own ticket to New Orleans.

Keep in mind this also may well be Welker's last season in a Patriots uniform. He's unsigned after this year, and his contract negotiations last offseason were disturbing at best.

There's never a shortage of storylines when the Ravens and Patriots get together. Brother Ray is 0-4 lifetime during the regular season in Foxborough, but he's 1-1 in the postseason here, and you know he'd like to go out with the upper hand.

"Baltimore, they're tough," Mayo said when asked about the Ravens. "These are the two teams that deserve to be in the AFC Championship Game."

And that's no fluke.