Patriots advance to AFC Championship Game with 41-28 win over Texans

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Patriots advance to AFC Championship Game with 41-28 win over Texans

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 performance from Shane Vereen sparked the Patriots to a 41-28 divisional round victory over the Texans on Sunday evening that put them in their second consecutive AFC Championship Game. Like last year, they'll be hosting the Ravens at Gillette Stadium, with the winner going to the Super Bowl.

Box score

"Oh, man, this is what you play football for," said cornerback Aqib Talib, whose midseason acquisition helped stabilize the defense and sparked the team's hot streak. "You don't play football to play 16 regular-season games and go home. You play to get in the tournament and try to get the trophy."

This step didn't figure to come as easy as their last meeting with the Texans -- when they spanked them, 42-12, on national television -- 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 it 94 yards downfield before finally being hauled down from behind by Devin McCourty at the Patriots' 12.

"That was a huge play by Devin to end up saving four points," said coach Bill Belichick of McCourty keeping Manning out of the end zone.

It saved points because the Patriots -- helped by a horrific Matt Schaub overthrow of Andre Johnson on third down -- prevented the Texans from scoring a touchdown. Houston had to settle for a 27-yard Shayne Graham field goal and a 3-0 lead.

"Our defense went in there and had a big stop," said Belichick. "That was really a huge series in the game."

Still, it was obvious this one would play out differently than the last meeting, at least for a while . . . 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.

"We had a whole plan built for Gronkowski and Woodhead," said Tom Brady, who became the winningest postseason quarterback in NFL history with his 17th playoff victory. "We run the first series of the game and all those plans change . . .

"But we seemed to settle in there midway through the first quarter and put together a pretty good game."

That they did, and it looked as if they'd gotten command of things when a pair of touchdowns from Vereen (1-yard run, capping a 65-yard drive, and 8-yard pass from 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-collar 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. Later in the quarter, Rob Ninkovich choked off a Texans threat with an interception, and the Pats capitalized with a five-yard TD pass from Brady to Brandon Lloyd that made it 31-13.

"That was a huge play for us, big stop," Belichick said of Ninkovich's interception. "We were able to convert that into points offensively, so that was a key play in the game for us."

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 41-28 final.

And now it's back to the AFC title game against the Ravens.

"As a guy two years in the league, I guess just assume it happens every year," said second-year offensive tackle Nate Solder. "But I know that's not the case, so I feel honored and blessed to be here."

Especially since three months ago, another trip to the conference championship was anything but assumed.

Chara 'felt pretty good' in first game back

Chara 'felt pretty good' in first game back

BOSTON -- Zdeno Chara knew which question was coming, so he didn’t even wait for it to be asked in the postgame B’s dressing room.

“I felt pretty good for the first game. It was a good game to come back,” said Chara, who finished with a minus-1 rating in 23:31 of ice time. “Obviously, Florida is a very good skating team and it is always kind of challenging to play them. But I had no issues. It felt good to be back and, obviously, big win.”

Surprisingly the Bruins didn’t have many issues from a defensive standpoint in the six games that their captain missed with a lower body injury, and finished with a 3-2-1 record and 10 goals allowed in the aforementioned six games.

That was something Chara, off to the best start to a season in at least a couple of years, remarked on both right before and after returning to the B’s lineup on Monday.

“I was very proud. It was exciting to see how they battled and it’s never easy. Every game is a challenge and every game is a big game,” said Chara, who has one goal and six points along with a plus-11 rating in 20 games this season. “There’s never an easy game. But guys were battling. They were playing some hard opponents and they won some really big games by gutsy efforts.”

Still it was good to get Chara back into the mix as a top shutdown pairing with 20-year-old Brandon Carlo, and that allowed the rest of the defensive pieces to fall into place for the Black and Gold.

Clearly there was a little bit of rust on Chara after just practicing for a couple of days and he’ll really be pushed with so many games coming up in a short period of time, but it is nearly impossible to push the 39-year-old out of the lineup after he’s worked his way back in. The timing, the reads and the positioning will all get back to top form quickly for the 19-year veteran, but his coach thought it was a good first step with him while showing no issues moving around on his skates throughout the game.

“He played okay. It was his first game back and, you know, a lot of responsibility,” said Julien. “You expect guys to work themselves back in, and I think he did a good job.”

Now Chara will focus on working himself back into the rhythm he was in prior to the injury, and preparing his nearly 40-year-old body for the grinding schedule that awaits them for the rest of this month.

Red Sox trade Shaw, prospects for reliever Thornburg

Red Sox trade Shaw, prospects for reliever Thornburg

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The Red Sox got the bullpen help they were seeking Tuesday, but it came at a steep price.
     
The Sox obtained righthanded reliever Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers, but it cost them infielder Travis Shaw, highly regarded shortstop prospect Mauricio Dubon and pitching prospect Josh Pennington, according to an industry source.

In Thornburg, 28, the Red Sox get a hard-throwing reliever whom they control for the next three seasons. He became the Brewers' closer after the trade deadline last year and recorded 13 saves while posting a 2.15 ERA and avergaing 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
    
He will serve as the Red Sox' primary set-up option to get to closer Craig Kimbrel.
     
One potential issue for Thornburg is that he's dealt with some elbow issues in the recent past. As recently as 2014, it was thought that he might require Tommy John surgery, but he instead underwent PRP (platelt rich plasma) treatment and has remained healthy.

Given that the last set-up reliever obtained by Dombrowski, Carson Smith, underwent Tommy John surgery last season, Thornburg's injury history raises a caution flag.

In dealing Shaw, the Red Sox are now expecting Pablo Sandoval to be their primary third baseman -- at least in the near term.

Sandoval missed all but a few games in 2016 with a shoulder injury and his conditioning has been an issue since signing with the Red Sox two years ago.

The Red Sox have Brock Holt to help out at third in 2017, with both Yoan Moncada and Rafael Devers waiting in the wings.

Dubon is the second top prospect to be dealt by Dombrowski in the last 13 months. He included Javier Guerra in a package with three other prospects to obtain Kimbrel in November of 2015.

Dubon posted a .912 OPS in half a season at Portland last year and recently played in the Arizona Fall League. He has limited power, but strong athleticism and makes good contact.

Pennington is 20, a hard-throwing (94-98 mph) righthander who could profile either as a late-inning weapon or a starter. He's years away from the big leagues and has already undergone Tommy John surgery.

The Boston Herald was the first to report that the teams had made a trade. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com was the first to report the details.