Patriots, Falcons Advance to NFL’s Conference Championship Games

Tom Brady passed Joe Montana for the most National Football League playoff wins by a quarterback as the New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans 41-28.

Matt Ryan finally got his first postseason victory and the Atlanta Falcons slipped past the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 as yesterday’s home wins by the Patriots and Falcons completed the matchups for the NFL’s conference championship games.

The Patriots (13-4) advanced to a Jan. 20 rematch with Baltimore for the American Football Conference championship. The Ravens (12-6) two days ago knocked off the top-seeded Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime. New England beat Baltimore 23-20 in last year’s AFC title game and is favored by 9 1/2 points this week as Brady plays for the AFC championship for the seventh time in 12 years.

“I think the two best teams are in the finals,” Brady said at a news conference. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it’s very fitting.”

The Falcons (14-3) will host the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football Conference championship game on Jan. 20 after beating the Seahawks on a 49-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with eight seconds remaining. Bryant’s winning kick came after Atlanta had blown a 27-7 fourth-quarter lead.

The 49ers (12-4-1), who reached the NFC title game two days ago with a 45-31 win against the Green Bay Packers, are favored by 3 1/2 points in Atlanta, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s Super Book.

“We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to play better than we did in the second half,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said at a news conference .“That’s where my mindset is. It’s already flipped the switch. We have a good team coming in.”

The conference champions advance to the Super Bowl, which is scheduled for Feb. 3 in New Orleans.

Record Scoring

The combined 276 points scored in the four divisional games were the most in any round in NFL history, surpassing the previous record of 266 in the 1995 wild-card round.

Brady capped the high-scoring weekend by throwing for 344 yards and three touchdowns in Foxboro, Massachusetts. It was his 17th career playoff victory, moving him past Montana and within a win of a sixth trip to the Super Bowl.

Brady and the Patriots got the best of the Texans for the second time in just over a month, as New England also beat Houston 42-14 on Dec. 10. It was the first of three losses in a four-game span to end the regular season for the Texans, who had started with an 11-1 record. Houston finished the season with a 13-5 mark.

Patriots’ Surge

The Texans took a 3-0 lead one minute into the game before the Patriots ran off 17 straight points as Shane Vereen scored two of his three touchdowns. Vereen scored on a 1-yard run and hauled in an 8-yard touchdown pass from Brady.

After Houston scored 10 points in the final 1:20 of the first half to pull within 17-13, the Patriots opened the third quarter with a 69-yard drive capped by an eight-yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley. Brady then threw scoring passes to Brandon Lloyd and Vereen to push New England’s advantage to 38-13 with 13:07 left.

Matt Schaub had 343 yards passing and threw fourth-quarter touchdown passes to DeVier Posey and Arian Foster for the Texans. It wasn’t enough against the Patriots, who lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski after he re-injured his left forearm during the first quarter.

“We’ll enjoy this one for a little while and then get on to the Ravens,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose team lost in Baltimore 31-30 on Sept. 23.

Lead Changes

In Atlanta, the Falcons won the second postseason game in NFL history to have two lead changes in the final 31 seconds of regulation. The other was the Tennessee Titans’ 22-16 win against the Buffalo Bills in a first-round playoff game on Jan. 8, 2000, a victory known as the “Music City Miracle.”

The Seahawks, who were down 20-0 at halftime, rallied to a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds remaining as Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run. The Falcons avoided a fifth straight postseason loss as Ryan completed two passes for 41 yards to set up Bryant’s winning kick.

“The peaks and valleys in that game were as significant as I’ve ever been a part of,” said Ryan, who passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns.

Atlanta is headed back to the NFC championship game for the first time since 2005 after withstanding a comeback attempt orchestrated by Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, who passed for 385 yards and two touchdowns. Wilson also rushed for 60 yards and a score for the Seahawks (12-6).

Ryan’s Touchdowns

Ryan threw touchdown passes to Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Jason Snelling in guiding the Falcons to a 27-7 third-quarter lead. His six career touchdown passes are now the most in franchise history, one better than Steve Bartkowski.

The Seahawks missed two first-half scoring chances, the first when they were stopped on a fourth-and-1 play from the Atlanta 11-yard line. In the closing seconds, Wilson was sacked at the Falcons’ 11-yard line on a third-down play and the Seahawks, with no timeouts left, were unable to snap the ball again before time expired in the first half.

Wilson threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate midway through the third quarter before spearheading the Seahawks’ comeback in the fourth. After rushing for a 1-yard score -- his fifth of the season -- Wilson threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Zach Miller to pull Seattle within 27-21. Miller finished with eight catches for 142 yards.

After stopping the Falcons’ offense twice more, Seattle got the ball back with three minutes remaining. Lynch caught a 24-yard pass out of the backfield to give Seattle a first down at Atlanta’s 2-yard line before giving Seattle its only lead of the game with his scoring run.

Trailing 28-27, Ryan then completed passes of 22 yards and 19 yards to set up Bryant’s game-winning field goal. Seattle’s chances ended when Julio Jones intercepted a last-second desperation pass in the end zone.

“We knew coming into it this week that it was going to take 60 minutes of our best football to come out with a win, and that’s kind of the way the game shook out,” Ryan said.

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