FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady is so good at this playoff thing he seems to be playing for a championship every year.
"I love playing, I love competing, I love being a part of this organization," said Brady, who threw for three touchdowns and 344 yards. "I think I've just been fortunate to play on some great teams over the years. I never take it for granted."
"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 beat Houston 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 Montana (45).
"I grew up a 49ers fan," Brady said after throwing for three touchdowns in the AFC divisional playoff. "Joe Montana and Steve Young ... those guys are in another class.
"I hope I am around for a few more years," the 35-year-old Brady added with a smile.
"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."
"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 ... but one team gets to have a smile on their face at the end of the season, and it's not us this year."
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.
"It's sweet just playing in the AFC Championship," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. "It's a team that beat us earlier this year at their house, and a team that's riled up for us."
That spark didn't even last one play, though, and Houston wound up with Graham's 27-yard field goal 63 seconds in.
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.
"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, and if my number is called, I do my best for the team."
NOTES: Brady is 5-2 in Super Bowls and if he reaches a sixth, he'll join a club that currently totals one player -- defensive tackle Mike Lodish. ... 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.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press