FOXBORO - The Patriots are pretty good at this "rematch" thing, and hopefully, that will serve them well next week.
Having dismissed the Houston Texans for the second time in a month, 41-28, in Sunday's AFC divisional-round playoff game at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots are now faced with a double-rematch of sorts - next Sunday's AFC Championship Game (6:30 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12) against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens, of course, were the stunned losers of last year's AFC title game in Foxboro (23-20), then gained a measure of regular-season revenge in a come-from-behind, 31-30 victory over the Patriots on Sept. 23 at M&T Bank Stadium.
But now, for the first time since the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns played in back-to-back AFC Championship Games in 1986 and 1987, last year's combatants will be reunited at the same site to determine which of them will be the conference's representative in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
"We know Baltimore is tough," Patriots' coach Bill Belichick said after Sunday's win over the Texans. "We had a great game with them down there earlier in the season. We know that will be a great battle. We'll enjoy this one for a little while and then get on to the Ravens tomorrow."
"I think the two best teams are in the finals," added quarterback Tom Brady, who became the all-time NFL leader in postseason victories. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting. We played them early in the year; they got us. We blew a pretty big lead there at the end. We're going to have to play our best game this week."
It was almost fitting that the Patriots turned their thoughts to Baltimore so quickly after the win over Houston, which was all-but secured when Shane Vereen scored his third touchdown of the game, a 33-yard throw from Brady with 13:07 left to play. Baltimore is riding a high tide of emotion from the announced end-of-season retirement of
linebacker Ray Lewis and the adrenaline produced from their 38-35, double-overtime win over the top-seeded Denver Broncos on Saturday.
That victory brought the AFC title game back to Gillette for the second straight year - but it will be played without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who re-injured his broken left forearm on a first-quarter pass he caught out of bounds. Reports said he would require surgery for a second time and will miss the rest of the season.
"It's hard to replace a player like him because he's a freak of nature," said fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, who caught six passes for 85 yards. "Everyone has to step up and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling."
Vereen's presence on the field was also the partial result of an injury to another proven performer in the playoffs. Running back Danny Woodhead went out of the game after the Patriots' first play with a left thumb injury and did not return. Whether Vereen's rank in the pecking order was the result of a lack of confidence in fumble-prone Stevan Ridley isn't known, but the second-year veteran carried seven times for 41 yards and caught five passes for 83 yards, including two receiving scores and one on the ground.
"We hate to lose Woody," Vereen said. "He is such a key part of our offense, but at the same time, all of the running backs hold ourselves accountable to be able to step up when somebody does go down."
Ridley got his chance for redemption later in the game and added 82 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown.
If there was a glaring breakdown in the Patriots' game, it was on kick return coverage. Houston's Danieal Manning returned the opening kickoff 94 yards - the Texans only got a field goal out of the stunning return - and had four in total for 216 yards.
"I guess we have to go look at it on tape and see what was happening," said special-teams captain Matthew Slater, "but it's disappointing. The defense bailed us out. The offense bailed us out. If we keep playing like that we're not going to get very far, we're not going to be playing a lot more football.
"We can't give the opposing team field position like that and all, so we just got to look at the tape and see what's happening and see where our breakdowns were and try and get it fixed," he said.
The 3-0 lead on Shayne Graham's 27-yard field goal with 13:57 left in the opening quarter was Houston's only lead. Vereen scored on a 1-yard run with 1:28 left in the quarter to shift the lead to the Patriots, and it reached 17-3 on Stephen Gostkowski's 37-yarder and Brady's 8-yard TD throw to Vereen.
The rout appeared to be on, but the Texans made things interesting in the last two minutes of the first half.
Manning's 35-yard kick return and a 15-yard penalty on Gostkowski for a horse-collar tackle brought the Texans to the Patriots' 47 with 3:30 to go. Arian Foster, held to just 46 yards in the first game in December, ripped off totes of 21 and 19 yards right off the bat, then three carries later, scored from the 1 to make it 17-10 with 1:15 left
The Patriots took only 51 seconds off the clock on a listless three-and-out, leaving the Texans plenty of time to set up a successful (and career-best) 55-yarder by Graham, who briefly kicked for the Patriots in 2010.
Texans' coach Gary Kubiak thought the momentum shift would work in his team's favor.
"Oh, no doubt. I thought we were in a dang-good football game," he said. "I thought we had a lot of plays that we missed in the first half. And yet, we were sitting there in the 17-13 game with a lot of momentum, making a big field goal in the end. But they put together a couple of big drives in the third quarter and we weren't able to match them."
The Patriots answered with a seven-play, 69-yard drive to open the second half, Hernandez's 40-yard catch-and-run play setting up Ridley's 8-yard run for a 24-13 lead with 11:30 to go.
Then, after defensive end Rob Ninkovich picked off Matt Schaub (34-51, 343 yards) to end a budding scoring drive, Ridley broke a 23-yard run to set up Brady's 5-yard TD toss to Brandon Lloyd (his first postseason score) for a 31-13 lead with 1:21 left in the third quarter.
Brady went for the jugular on the first play after getting the ball with 13:13 left to play, firing to Vereen for a 33-yard score and a 38-13 bulge - enough to sustain two late TDs by the Texans that consumed far too much time off the clock.
So the Patriots head on to another AFC Championship Game, and the Texans must continue to shed their expansion past and rebuild again for next year.
"There's no good landing in this business unless you're playing a few weeks from now," Kubiak said. "Other than that, the landing's a crash."