By BARRY WILNER
---- — FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady idolized Joe Montana as a kid in the Bay Area. Now, he’s surpassed his hero for postseason wins.
Brady got his 17th, the most for any quarterback, in New England’s 41-28 AFC divisional victory over Houston yesterday. If Brady can lead the Patriots past Baltimore in next weekend’s conference title game, then win the Super Bowl, he’ll equal the 49ers’ Hall of Famer for NFL championships.
Brady has guided the Patriots to five Super Bowls, winning the first three; Montana was 4 for 4 in the big game, playing for Brady’s hometown team.
“I grew up a 49ers fan,” Brady said. “Joe Montana and Steve Young ... those guys are in another class.”
Next up is Baltimore, which stunned top-seeded Denver in double overtime Saturday, and lost 23-20 at Gillette Stadium last January in the last step before the Super Bowl. But the Ravens beat the Patriots in Week 3 this season at Baltimore.
“I think the two best teams are in the final,” Brady said. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we.”
Seldom-used Shane Vereen scored three times, twice on pinpoint throws from Brady, as New England (13-4) beat Houston (13-5) for the second time in a month.
Brady was missing some key helpers, but got the usual outstanding performance from Wes Welker, his favorite target the last six years. The AFC’s top receiver with 118 catches this season, Welker looked like he might reach that total against Houston’s befuddled defense. He caught six in the first half for 120 yards, including a 47-yarder, and wound up with eight for 131.
And the AFC East champion Patriots got more than anyone could have predicted from third-string running back Vereen, who scored their first two TDs on a 1-yard run and an 8-yard pass. He capped his biggest pro performance with an over-the-shoulder 33-yard catch early in the fourth period.
It was Brady’s 41st postseason TD pass, behind only Brett Favre (44) and, you guessed it, Montana (45).
“I hope I am around for a few more years,” the 35-year-old Brady said. “I love playing, I love competing ...”
The boost from Vereen offset the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) and RB Danny Woodhead (thumb) in the first quarter.
“Shane had a great game, just a huge growing up moment for him, very special,” Brady said. “There were a lot of guys who made a lot of plays.”
New England’s defense helped put away the Texans. Rob Ninkovich’s leaping third-quarter interception stopped a drive, and six plays later, Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for a 6-yard score.
Although the Texans got two fourth-quarter TDs on passes by Matt Schaub, their season ended with four defeats in their last six games. That slump cost the AFC South champions the top seed in the playoffs, forcing a trip to New England after they beat Cincinnati in the wild-card round.
The Texans couldn’t measure up.
Unlike their 42-14 loss here a month ago, the Texans didn’t fold early. J.J. Watt, their dominating defensive end, bothered Brady, and when they fell behind 17-3, they had the fortitude to climb back.
Arian Foster did all the work after Danieal Manning’s second big kickoff return, this one a 35-yarder that had 15 yards tacked on when kicker Stephen Gostkowski brought down Manning with a horse-collar tackle. The Pro Bowl runner covered all 47 yards on a five-play drive and his 1-yard run — he barely squeezed into the end zone — made it 17-10.
Houston forced a three-and-out, and a short punt gave the Texans another shot just before halftime. They got close enough for Shayne Graham to kick a 55-yard field goal as the half ended.
But the Patriots pulled away in the third quarter for coach Bill Belichick’s 17th postseason win, third behind Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19).
Needing a quick jolt after being blown out by the Patriots on Dec. 10, the Texans got it on the opening kickoff from Manning. He took the ball 6 yards in his end zone and never hesitated in returning it. He broke free at the Houston 30 and wasn’t run down until reaching the New England 12.
That spark didn’t even last one play, though, and Houston wound up with Graham’s 27-yard field goal 63 seconds in.
And when the Texans closed the first half with a 10-point spurt, they wasted the momentum by allowing a quick touchdown drive to open the third period. Brady went to the familiar (Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez) on that series before second-year back Stevan Ridley scored on an 8-yard burst.
New England lost Gronkowski and Woodhead almost immediately. Gronkowski missed five regular-season games with a broken left forearm, but returned for the finale. Eight Patriots plays on offense and he was gone again.
So Brady found other targets; he probably could complete passes to Belichick for big gains.
Vereen was an unlikely star. After gaining 400 yards overall during the season, he picked up 124 against the Texans. He had four touchdowns in the regular season.
NOTES: New England has played in eight AFC championship games, going 7-1, including 5-1 with Brady and Belichick. ... Brady threw for 344 yards, and Schaub threw for 343. Schaub’s TD passes were 25 yards to DeVier Posey and 1 to Foster. ... Foster had 90 yards rushing, the first time in four playoff games he did not reach 100. But his 515 tie for most in a player’s first four playoff games with Denver’s Terrell Davis.
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