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.

Bogaerts hitting at a record-setting pace

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Bogaerts hitting at a record-setting pace

A change of scenery is a must for the Red Sox after the rough series in Texas, where they were lucky to walk away with one win.

The pitching staff's struggles were the most apparent, but Xander Bogaerts had arguably his worst series of the season -- 2-for-12 at the plate and two errors in the field.

Although Bogaerts now finds himself three points behind José Altuve (.347) for the American League batting lead, he still leads the major leagues with 108 hits. He has more hits than Daniel Murphy, who’s at .349 in the National League.

And despite his weekend struggles, the Boston shortstop is in position to make a run at history  -- the single-season hits record.

Bogaerts is already in a comfortable spot to break Wade Boggs’ Red Sox record of 240 hits, set in 1985. Through 74 games, Bogaerts has 10 more hits than the Hall-of-Famer had at that point in the season.

He's also ahead of the pace set in 2004 by Ichiro Suzuki, who established the MLB record for most hits in a season with 262 that year. Bogarts has five more hits than Ichiro had through 74 games.

There's no guarantee he'll reach 262, or anything close. Ichiro had a strong finishing kick in '04, batting .418 with 159 hits after his 74th game. In fact, in his final 74 games, he hit .433 with 141 hits. He's left challengers in the dust before: Altuve was equal to Ichiro's pace in 2014 -- both had 105 hits in their first 76 games -- but wound up with "only" 225 hits.

So, admittedly, Bogaerts is facing an uphill battle.

He does have a one advantage over Ichiro, though. In 2004, Suzuki -- still playing for the Mariners -- usually had Randy Winn hitting behind him. Although Winn was a respectable player, he doesn’t command the respect of the hitter who's usually behind Bogaerts: David Ortiz.

Opposing pitchers still don’t plan to attack Bogaerts, but it’d only be worse if pretty much anyone other than Ortiz was coming up next.

And there’s one last set of statistics to consider:

Suzuki finished 2004 with 80 games in which he had at least two hits. That’s 49.7 percent of the games he played in.

Bogaerts has done that 33 times -- 44.6 percent of his games. So he needs to string together some big games if he intends to make an improbable run at the 12-year-old record.

Improbable, yes.

But definitely not impossible.

Lionel Messi says he is quitting Argentina national team

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Lionel Messi says he is quitting Argentina national team

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Lionel Messi says he is quitting Argentina's national team.

Argentina and Messi lost a final for the third year in a row, with Chile winning the Copa America 4-2 on penalty kicks following a 0-0 tie Sunday night.

His nation's career scoring leader with 55 international goals, Messi sent Argentina's first penalty kick over the crossbar.

Messi tells the Argentine network TyC Sports "the national team is over for me. It's been four finals, it's not meant for me. I tried. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn't get it, so I think it's over."

Messi and Argentina lost to Brazil in the 2007 Copa final and to Germany in extra time in the 2014 World Cup final. They lost last year's Copa final to host Chile on penalty kicks.

The 29-year-old Messi has led Barcelona to four Champions League titles.

Perry's Patriots 53-man roster projection

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Perry's Patriots 53-man roster projection

With New England Patriots organized workouts finished until next month, Phil Perry puts together another 53-man roster projection.

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