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.
"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.