FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The New England Patriots are headed back to a familiar spot: the AFC championship game.
Dion Lewis had a 13-yard touchdown reception , a 98-yard kickoff return for a score, and a late 1-yard touchdown to help the Patriots hold off the Houston Texans 34-16 on Saturday night and advance to an NFL-record sixth straight conference title game.
New England will host the winner of Sunday night’s Pittsburgh-Kansas City matchup next Sunday for the right to play in the Super Bowl in Houston on Feb. 5.
“Whoever we play next week is going to be a great football team,” Tom Brady said. “We’re going to have to play better than we played tonight on offense.”
Lewis became the fifth Patriots player to score three touchdowns in a playoff game. He’s also the first player in the Super Bowl era to score on a rush, a catch and a kick return in a postseason game.
“I just approached it that I would be in there on every play. That’s just the way I prepare,” Lewis said. “So when it does happen, I won’t be surprised. I’ll always be ready.”
Bill Belichick’s Patriots (15-2) survived a gritty effort by the Texans’ top-ranked defense, which intercepted Brady twice. Houston’s special teams also forced a third turnover.
But the Texans (10-8) couldn’t find enough traction on offense to take full advantage of the Patriots’ mistakes, settling for field goals on both of Brady’s picks.
New England led just 17-13 at the half, but pushed its lead to 24-13 early in the third quarter on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brady to James White.
Houston’s Brock Osweiler was intercepted three times after that, and the Texans managed only a field goal the rest of game.
It was the first breakout game of the season for Lewis, who spent the first eight games of the season on injured reserve recovering from offseason surgery on his left knee.
Brady finished 18 of 38 for 287 yards and two touchdowns and was showered with chants of “MVP! MVP!” and “Brady! Brady!” late in the game. Julian Edelman was Brady’s most dependable target, catching eight passes for 137 yards.
Osweiler was just 23 of 40 for 198 yards with the two turnovers.
“You need to capitalize on great opportunities against a football team like this,” Osweiler said. “That’s my fault, I’ll clean that up.”
When New England did have the ball in the first half, it gave Houston a steady diet of Lewis early with LeGarrette Blount coming off an illness that limited him during practice this week.
Without Blount to contend with, the Texans applied pressure to Brady.
A.J. Bouye intercepted a slightly overthrown ball by Brady late in the first quarter on a pass that bounced out of the hands of receiver Michael Floyd. That led to a 27-yard field goal that cut New England’s lead to 14-6.
On the ensuing kickoff, Lewis coughed up the ball on a hit from Akeem Dent. Eddie Pleasant fell on it at the Patriots 12, and two plays later, Brock Osweiler hit C.J. Fiedorowicz from 8 yards out to cut the deficit to 14-13.
Brady only threw two interceptions during the regular season. With his 28 touchdown passes, that was the lowest touchdown to interception ratio in NFL history.
“I’ll be back next season. I’ll be the Texans head coach. I have a five-year contract. This is Year 3. … But like I’ve also said, I’ve got to do a better job.” — Houston coach Bill O’Brien.
Belichick and Brady advanced to their 11th conference championship game together. No other head coach and starting quarterback duo since the 1970 merger have gone to more than six.
CLOWN TIME IS OVER
Jadeveon Clowney was in Brady’s face all game, flattening him in the first half with a legal hit and bringing him down a couple of times in the second on plays that were a little more questionable.
In the third quarter, Brady was chased out of the pocket before heaving the ball downfield. Clowney dragged him to the turf, and Brady came up kicking. The Patriots quarterback made his case to the referee, but no penalty was called.
Early in the fourth, though Clowney was called for roughing the passer for Brady after he got rid of the ball and while he was in the clutches of defensive end Christian Covington.
PILING UP POINTS
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski continues to climb the NFL’s career postseason scoring list.
He made an extra point in the first quarter to pass Jerry Rice and move into third place on the league’s career list. It was Gostkowski’s 133rd postseason point, breaking a tie with the Hall of Fame receiver.
Texans: RB Tyler Ervin left in the second quarter with a concussion. Defensive end Joel Heath exited in the fourth quarter with a knee injury and did not return.
Patriots: WR Chris Hogan left in the third quarter with a thigh injury.
Texans: End of season.
Patriots: Will host either Pittsburgh or Kansas City in next week’s AFC title game.