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.

First impressions: Red Sox get to Yankees bullpen

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First impressions: Red Sox get to Yankees bullpen

First Impressions from the Red Sox' 8-7 victory over the Yankees.

 

All of a sudden, David Price is having issues at Fenway.

When the Sox signed Price last December, they cited his past

success in their home ballpark (1.95 ERA) as evidence that he could thrive here. But six starts into his Red Sox career, his three worst starts have come here. He's pitched 22 2/3 innings and allowed 21 earned runs.

Even stranger is that so much damage was done by Alex Rodriguez, who previously had compiled a .237 career average against Price with just one homer in 57 at-bats.

 

It's highly unusual for John Farrell to go to the mound and not take the starting pitcher out.

But that's what happened in the top of the seventh. David Price was in the mid-90s with his pitch count and Rodriguez -- who had homered and doubled off Price in his previous two at-bats -- was due. It seemed obvious that Price was coming out of the game.

Instead, Price was left in and grounded out to second to end the inning. It says something about Farrell's trust in Price - or Price's powers of persuasion -- that the lefty stayed in the game.

 

Credit Travis Shaw with making some in-game adjustments.

In his first two at-bats against New York starter Nathan Eovaldi, Shaw struck out twice. Both times, Eovaldi started him off with a curve ball.

But when Eovaldi tried it again in the fifth, Shaw hammered the pitch deep into the right field seats for a two-run homer.

 

The Red Sox bullpen far outshone that of the Yankees in this series.

In the three games just played, Boston relievers tossed seven shutout innings in the series, while Yankees' righthander Dellin Betances twice yielded two-run homers to cost the Yanks both games.

 

Dustin Pedroia insists he's not focusing on hitting the ball the other way, but the results suggest otherwise.

Pedroia banged out three singles Sunday night and all three were hit to right. On the current homestand, Pedroia has a total of eight hits; five were hit to right field.

 

Funeral for ex-Patriot Ron Brace scheduled for Monday

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Funeral for ex-Patriot Ron Brace scheduled for Monday

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - Former New England Patriots defensive lineman Ron Brace is being laid to rest in his home town.

A celebration of his life will be held at St. John's Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Monday morning followed by a noontime funeral service. Burial will follow at Oak Grove Cemetery.

Brace died at his family's home April 24. He was 29.

Police say his death was not suspicious and appears to be have been caused by a medical condition.

Brace grew up in Springfield and attended Burncoat High School in Worcester, Massachusetts. After a standout career at Boston College, he was drafted by the Patriots in the second round of the 2009 draft and played four years with the team.

He is survived by his parents and six siblings.

Farrell on Sox rotation: 'We've got to get Clay going'

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Farrell on Sox rotation: 'We've got to get Clay going'

BOSTON - Maybe it wasn't a warning shot, but more of an idle observation. Maybe it wasn't a challenge at all.

But what John Farrell had to say Sunday afternoon about Clay Buchholz was, if nothing else, noteworthy.

In assessing his team's play in the just-completed first month of the season, Farrell noted that the starting rotation, after a particularly rough beginning, had stabilized of late.

With one exception, that is.

"We've got to get Clay going, particularly," Farrell said. "He's an important part of our rotation, an important part of this team. We've got to get him on track." Buchholz is winless in his five starts, with an 0-3 mark and an inflated ERA of 6.51. He's given up a minimum of five earned runs in each start and has yet to pitch through the seventh inning.

Farrell noted that the issue has been less about quality of stuff and more about his aggressiveness - or lack thereof.

"There are times,'' Farrell said, "when we've seen Clay execute pitches with, I think, a greater conviction to the pitch. There are other times where maybe he's pitched away from contact a little bit too much and not attacked the strike zone. To me, there comes an attitude on the mound that's got to be prevailing."

The Sox aren't far from welcoming back to starters. Eduardo Rodriguez, who tweaked his knee in early March, is set to make his second rehab start for Pawtucket Tuesday and could conceivably return five days after that. At most, Rodriguez will be ready with one more additional outing.

Next up is Joe Kelly, who is on the DL with a shoulder impingement. Kelly has thrown some bullpen sessions and could begin a rehab assignment later in the week.

That will lead to the Sox making some tough decisions in the coming weeks. It had been widely assumed that knuckleballer Steven Wright would be he most vulnerable starter, but Wright is 2-2 with a 1.37 ERA in four outings.

Asked to assess where the Sox within the context of the division, Farrell said: "We're probably searching to shore up areas that are in need, and that first starts with making the necessary adjustments with the guys that are on our roster now. Not that we're going to make wholesale changes. Like I said, we've got to get Clay going. That's a big improvement that we could make."