FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady idolized Joe Montana as a kid growing up near San Francisco. Sunday, he surpassed his hero.
Brady got his 17th postseason win, the most by a starting quarterback in NFL history, as the Patriots got past the Texans 41-28 in an AFC division playoff game.
"I grew up a 49ers fan," said Brady, who threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns. "Joe Montana and Steve Young … those guys are in another class."
Next up is Baltimore, which stunned top-seeded Denver in double overtime 38-35 Saturday. The Ravens beat the Patriots 23-20 on a field goal with no time left on Sept. 23.
"It's sweet just playing in the AFC championship," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "It's a team that beat us earlier this year at their house and a team that's riled up for us."
Brady played most of the game without two targets after tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) and running back Danny Woodhead (thumb) left with injuries.
But he got more than anyone could have predicted from Shane Vereen. The third-string running back scored three touchdowns, one fewer than during the entire regular season. He also had 124 total yards (83 receiving and 41 rushing) after recording 400 (251 rushing and 149 receiving) during the regular season.
"Shane had a great game," Brady said, "just a huge growing-up moment for him; very special."
While Stevan Ridley, a 1,000-yard rusher, maintained the lead role — 82 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries — Vereen got into the end zone more often.
Vereen ran for a 1-yard score in the first quarter and caught an 8-yarder in the second quarter. He capped the biggest day of his career early in the fourth with an over-the-shoulder 33-yard catch behind former Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud, making it 38-13.
"I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play," said Vereen, a second-round pick by the Patriots in 2011 out of California. "I come into the game ready to go. And if my number is called, I do my best for the team.
"We hate to lose Woody. … But at the same time, all of the running backs hold ourselves accountable to be able to step up when somebody does go down."
The second touchdown to Vereen was Brady's 41st during the playoffs, behind only Brett Favre (44) and Montana (45).
"I hope I am around for a few more years," Brady, 35, said. "I love playing. I love competing. I think I've just been fortunate to play on some great teams over the years. I never take it for granted."
Although the Texans got two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Matt Schaub, their season ended with four defeats in their last six games. The slump cost the AFC South champs the top seed in the playoffs, forcing a trip to New England after they beat the Bengals last week.
"Whenever the season ends, no matter when, it's really hard," tight end Owen Daniels said. "The farther along you get, the harder it is to take. It's one we wanted to win really bad. It's tough to swallow."