FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The clock had just crossed into the fourth quarter, and the Houston Texans were desperately trying to hold onto a football game spiraling out of their reach. They'd just won a challenge to uphold a crucial 1-yard fourth-down conversion, giving them extended life in their effort to hack away at New England's two-touchdown-plus lead.
Four plays later, however, as they once again tempted fourth-quarter fate, you just knew they wouldn't win the risky football bet, not inside a packed-to-the-rafters stadium filled with hostile home crowd hatred. Indeed, the Texans didn't get their yard Sunday. And when Matt Schaub's over-the-middle pass fell hopelessly incomplete, his New England counterpart practically sprinted his offense back onto the field.
Tom Brady could barely wait to accept the gift so deep in Houston territory.
In one play, he made it count. The most lethal football weapon of our time struck again.
As Brady let go of the football, as he lofted a 33-yard strike to Shane Vereen's waiting hands, as he reminded us again of what it looks like to be the best quarterback of your generation, he delivered the Patriots' final touchdown in what would be a 41-28 victory ticket to the AFC Championship game.
One play was all Brady needed to slam the door on the reeling Texans, one throw that pushed him past the 300-yard barrier (the fifth time he's done that in the playoffs), one throw to thrust another star onto the
Instead we return to Foxborough next weekend for an AFC title game rematch with the Baltimore Ravens, return to Tom Brady's house because the quarterback who just passed his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, with his record 17th postseason victory slammed the door on a wild weekend of football.
While veteran colleagues left the playoffs early and brash, young newcomers crashed the party for the first time, Brady took the stage for the football finale and left no doubt he is still the king of the position. So long Peyton Manning and hello Colin Kaepernick: Tom Brady is still in town.
"I wouldn't want anyone else out there -- he's the best in the league," Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said.
It was Ninkovich's leaping interception that ended a dangerous third-quarter drive by the Texans, one that posed a real threat to cut into a 24-13 deficit when it reached the Patriots' 37-yard-line. But as Schaub took the slump-shouldered walk of shame to the sidelines, unsnapping his chinstrap in a quarterback's patented display of disgust, Brady made Ninkovich a real hero by cashing in for a touchdown six plays later.
"Our job is to get our offense the ball," Ninkovich said. "When they have the ball, anything can become a big play."
Across more than a decade now, Brady has become the game's most magical practitioner of those big plays, and Sunday's win was no exception. Not even the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski slowed him in the cool evening air, not when he still had favorite target Wes Welker on the field.
Halftime hadn't even hit by the time Welker owned a new personal-playoff yardage high, and with a 47-yard completion as the highlight, the tough-minded receiver finished with eight catches for 131 yards.
Brady was his usual democratic self, connecting with six receivers, finishing with a 115.0 rating for 344 yards passing, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Yet in the haze of postgame exhaustion, Brady, like his coach, Bill Belichick, had to muster a level of verbal excitement to match what had just happened on the field.
"I'm tired man," he said. "There was a lot of emotional energy spent. It's a big buildup to the week and we had four days of practice. You're up and you're down, you're up and you're down. I'm tired. I'm ready to go home."
With Sunday's win, he gets to stay home, and once again, the path of the NFL playoffs winds its way through windswept Gillette Stadium.