Pats beat Texans 41-28, return to AFC title game

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Pats beat Texans 41-28, return to AFC title game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Tom Brady made history. Now it's his coach's turn.

The Patriots' quarterback added to a string of postseason success that stretches back more than a decade, earning his 17th playoff win to break a tie with his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, for most by a quarterback.

After New England's 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday night, Bill Belichick needs two more playoff wins to match Tom Landry's NFL high of 20. If Belichick gets there this season he'd also tie Chuck Noll for most Super Bowl championships by a coach with four.

First, the Baltimore Ravens stand in the way next Sunday in a rematch of last year's AFC title game.

``Right now our focus is just (being) happy to win this game and get on to Baltimore,'' Belichick said. ``We can reflect back on some other years some other time.''

Sunday was Brady's day to reach a milestone. His first postseason win came in the 2001 season, which ended with his first Super Bowl title. Now he's guiding the NFL's most productive offense into his sixth AFC championship game in his 13 seasons.

``He's our leader and we all follow him,'' said Belichick, the team's real leader. ``We all respect him and he led the team today, along with a lot of other guys. But he certainly did his job, as he's done many times before.''

It won't take Belichick long to put Sunday's victory out of his mind, impressive as it was. Brady also is ready to move on to the next challenge.

``I think the two best teams are in the finals,'' he said. ``Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's fitting.''

The Texans (13-5) certainly don't after losing four of their last six games, starting with a 42-14 rout by the Patriots (13-4) on Dec. 10 on the same field where their season ended.

``There's no good landing in this business unless you're playing a few weeks from now,'' Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. ``Other than that, the landing's a crash.''

Brady threw for three scores and 344 yards and seldom-used running back Shane Vereen, seeing more action because Danny Woodhead hurt his thumb on the Patriots' first offensive play, had three touchdowns. Wes Welker had eight catches for a career postseason-high 131 yards and the defense held Arian Foster to 90 yards rushing, his first sub-100-yard playoff game in the four he's had.

The Patriots also overcame the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who broke the left arm he originally broke on Nov. 18 in a 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts and needs season-ending surgery, a person with knowledge of the injury told The Associated Press.

``It's a bummer to lose anybody,'' Brady said, ``but someone of Rob's importance or Danny's importance, we need guys to step in and fill the void, whether it's this game or any game after.''

Gronkowski missed the first game against the Texans, one of five he sat out after his first injury, and it didn't matter.

The Texans were more competitive on Sunday and trailed only 17-13 at halftime as Foster scored on a 1-yard run and Shayne Graham kicked a 55-yard field goal in the last 1:11 before intermission.

But the Patriots scored on two of their first three series in the third quarter on Stevan Ridley's 8-yard run and Brady's 5-yard pass to Brandon Lloyd that made it 31-13.

``We came out in the second half and didn't perform,'' NFL sacks leader J.J. Watt said. ``Losing. I can't stand it. I can't stand any aspect of it. The taste in your mouth is terrible.''

Lloyd scored just six plays after Rob Ninkovich ended a Houston threat with an interception that gave New England the ball at its 37-yard line.

The Patriots needed just one play after taking over on downs early in the fourth quarter, scoring on an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch by Vereen for a 33-yard touchdown and a 38-13 advantage.

The third-string back finished with 124 total yards - 83 on five receptions and 41 on seven carries.

``I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play,'' Vereen said. ``I come into the game ready to go.''

The Texans were.

On the very first play, Danieal Manning returned the kickoff 94 yards before being hauled down by Devin McCourty at the Patriots 12. But all the Texans could get out of that was a 27-yard field goal by Shayne Graham.

``That was a huge play by Devin to really end up saving (four) points,'' Belichick said.

The Patriots punted on their first two series then took the lead for good on Vereen's 1-yard run following Brady's consecutive completions of 13 yards to Ridley, 25 to Vereen and 14 to Aaron Hernandez.

The Texans offense got going again in the fourth quarter, but it was too late. Matt Schaub's touchdown passes of 25 yards to DeVier Posey and 1 yard to Foster in the last 12 minutes just made the margin of defeat closer.

``It's difficult to sit here (with) the realization that our season is over,'' Schaub said.

The Patriots' season continues against a team it beat in last year's AFC title game 23-20, but lost to in Week 3 this season 31-30 after leading 30-21 with less than 5 minutes left.

The Ravens advanced with a 38-35 double-overtime win in Denver and will be on the road again, trying to keep Belichick from tying Don Shula with 19 postseason victories. A win would be the 18th for Brady and Belichick together since the Patriots drafted the quarterback in 2000. It also would put him two up on Montana.

``I grew up a 49ers fan,'' Brady said. ``Joe Montana and Steve Young ... those guys are in another class.

``I love playing, I love competing, I love being a part of this organization,'' he said. ``I think I've just been fortunate to play on some great teams over the years. I never take it for granted.''

NOTES: The Patriots are 14-3 at home in the playoffs, but just 3-2 in their last five games. ... The Texans were eliminated in their second playoff game for the second straight year after going their first nine seasons without a postseason appearance. ... Schaub threw for 343 yards, one less than Brady. ... Defensive backs Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory led the Patriots with 10 tackles each.

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Secretary of Defense gives thumbs-up for Reynolds to pursue NFL

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Secretary of Defense gives thumbs-up for Reynolds to pursue NFL

Ravens wide receiver Keenan Reynolds can officially defer his military service to play in the NFL, secretary of defense Ashton Carter said Friday. Carter made the announcement during his graduation speech at the Naval Academy.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, strongly recommended that Reynolds be allowed to pursue his NFL career. Now Reynolds has the official go-ahead.

“It is a blessing to hear the news from Defense Secretary Carter,” Reynolds said in a statement released by the Ravens. “I am truly excited to proudly serve my country while having the ability to fulfill my dream of playing for the best organization in the NFL.

“I would like to thank the Navy for allowing me to represent them while taking advantage of this unique opportunity. I would also like to thank (Ravens owner) Mr. (Steve) Bisciotti and the Ravens organization for believing in me and giving me this chance.”

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement, “This is good news, and congratulations on to Keenan on his graduation today.”

The Ravens selected Reynolds in the sixth round of the draft, and are intrigued by his potential as a returner and receiver after a stellar career at Navy as a quarterback. Reynolds finished his Navy career as the FBS all-time leader in touchdowns (88).

Reynolds has sought advice on making the transition from quarterback to receiver-returner from CSN’s Brian Mitchell, who was a Pro Bowl returner with the Redskins, and from Hines Ward, a Pro Bowl receiver with the Steelers. The next challenge for Reynolds is to win a spot on the Ravens’ 53-man roster, and many people will be rooting for him.

Can Ravens WR Michael Campanaro stay healthy enough to secure roster spot?

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Can Ravens WR Michael Campanaro stay healthy enough to secure roster spot?

OWINGS MILLS – Third-year wide receiver Michael Campanaro will have a difficult time making the Ravens in 2016 if he does not stay healthy. He is not off to a good start. A calf injury forced Campanaro to miss the first week of OTA’s, and his return date remained uncertain.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh expressed empathy for Campanaro following Thursday’s practice.

“He tweaked his calf a couple of weeks ago and he’s working hard,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve just never seen a guy work as hard as this guy has worked in the last year and a half. There will be a time he will get past this stuff. This stuff will stop happening and hopefully it’s training camp, and that’s what we’re hoping for him. The guy works tremendously hard and he was in phenomenal shape, and we’re still expecting really good things from him.”

Campanaro’s season ended last year after just four games due to a herniated disc. As a rookie in 2014, Campanaro was plagued by hamstring injuries that did not clear up until late in the season.

When Campanaro has been healthy, he has produced as a slot receiver. During the Ravens’ 35-31 playoff loss to the Patriots that ended his rookie season, Campanaro had four catches for 39 yards, and looked unfazed by postseason pressure.

However, Campanaro’s injuries have kept him from building momentum as a player. Meanwhile, the Ravens have added Mike Wallace and rookies Chris Moore and Keenan Reynolds to a wide receiver group that also includes Steve Smith Sr., Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, Jeremy Butler, Kaelin Clay, and Chris Matthews.

Campanaro could help the Ravens as a returner, but so can Reynolds and Clay. The Ravens have been waiting for Campanaro to show he can remain healthy. If that does not happen during training camp, it might be too late.

Five observations from Ravens OTAs

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Five observations from Ravens OTAs

The Ravens are wrapping up their first of three -- oops, make that two -- weeks of OTA workouts this week, and Thursday's session was the first open to the media. Here are five observations after catching the first partial glimpse of the 2016 Ravens (partial because more than a dozen players, including many starters, sat out the voluntary workouts either by choice or because of injury.)

This wide receiver group appears impressive

Steve Smith Sr. wasn't even there, but Breshad Perriman, Mike Wallace and rookie Chris Moore all look like they will be nice options for Joe Flacco (who, incidentally, watched the OTAs in a T-shirt as he continues his knee rehab.). Heck, the fact that Perriman was on the field is already a big improvement over last year. Kamar Aiken reverts to being a very solid No. 3 or No. 4 option if this group stays healthy. Speaking of health, Michael Camapanaro (calf) missed the workout, and with this group of receivers, including Navy's Keenan Reynolds, Campanaro is one more nagging injury from not making this roster. 

Dennis Pitta could leave the Ravens in a very tough spot

Good for Dennis Pitta to work back from his second major hip injury and get back on the field, even if for noncontact OTAs. He ran, cut and caught well, and he said after the workout that he felt great physically. "My level of expectation is extremely high going into this year," he said. "Like I said, I feel confident in how I can run, how I can move, how I can play." But if Pitta, who turns 31 next month, is indeed healthy, then what? The Ravens brought in Ben Watson this year, and already have two promising young tight ends in Crockett Gillmore and second-year, second-round pick Maxx Williams. None of them are going anywhere. Would the Ravens cut Pitta, one of the most likable players on the team and a close friend of Joe Flacco's, after his grueling rehab? Would they keep four tight ends? That would be highly unusual, but not out of the question with Marc Trestman's offense. Incidentally, tight end Todd Heap was 31 when the Ravens let him go.

Interesting look at inside linebacker

With Daryl Smith gone and C.J. Mosley sitting out, rookie second-round pick Kamalei Correa, billed as an edge rusher, spent a lot of time at inside linebacker. Coach John Harbaugh said afterward that Correa "has inside linebacker traits." The Ravens also appear to be looking at safety Anthony Levine as a linebacker option. He did some individual work with the inside linebackers and spent some time as an inside linebacker in 7-on-7 drills. Coverage was a big issue for Ravens linebackers last year, so if Levine and Correa show they can cover well over the middle, that versatility could be a big plus.

Lardarius Webb seems at home at safety

The move from corner to safety should agree with Lardarius Webb. He drifted over well in deep coverage, but it wasn't encouraging to see a potential interception bounce off his hands. This team had a franchise-record-low six interceptions last year. Webb said moving to safety has been "a great transition. I’m loving it. I have more control of the defense."

Losing a week of OTAs isn't the end of the world

The Ravens have been docked next week's OTA workouts as a penalty for reportedly having players in pads for a brief portion of their rookie minicamp in violation of the current collective bargaining agreement. It certainly isn't a good look, but it shouldn't have much bearing on whether the Ravens can beat the Steelers on Christmas night. Many veterans weren't on the field this week anyway. It might be a speed bump in development for Ravens rookies and other newcomers, but there's a lot of training camp for that. Three days off in June might do some bodies good. If anyone is hurt by this it might be Keenan Reynolds -- the former Navy quarterback is trying to quickly learn the wide receiver position, and he missed the OTAs this week because of his graduation in Annapolis.