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Vereen's 2 TDs lead Pats to 31-13 lead after third

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Vereen's 2 TDs lead Pats to 31-13 lead after third

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes, Shane Vereen scored twice and the New England Patriots overcame a 94-yard return by Danieal Manning on the opening kickoff to take a 31-13 lead over the Houston Texans after three quarters of their AFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

Shayne Graham kicked a 55-yard field goal on the final play of the first half after a short punt by Zoltan Mesko gave the Texans the ball at their 38-yard line. That cut the lead to 17-13.

But the Patriots (12-4) scored on two of their three series in the third quarter on an 8-yard run by Stevan Ridley and a 5-yard pass from Brady to Brandon Lloyd.

The Patriots got little help from running back Danny Woodhead and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who left with injuries.

Woodhead hurt his thumb after carrying the ball on the Patriots' first offensive play and Gronkowski went to the locker room with an arm injury midway through the period. Gronkowski was playing his second game since breaking his left forearm

After the Patriots took a 24-13 lead with Ridley's touchdown, both teams punted before the Texans (13-4) started a drive at their 10-yard line. They moved to the New England 37 with the help of a 22-yard completion from Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson. But five plays later, Rob Ninkovich jumped and intercepted a pass over the middle intended for James Casey.

That gave the Patriots the ball at their 37 and they needed just six plays to score on Lloyd's touchdown in the first playoff game of his 10-year career.

Vereen had scored on a 1-yard run with 1:28 left in the first quarter after Graham opened the scoring with a 27-yard field goal.

Stephen Gostkowski gave the Patriots a 10-3 lead with a 31-yard field goal on the first series of the second quarter. They went ahead 17-3 as Tom Brady threw to a wide-open Vereen, who easily ran into the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown reception.

But the Texans made it 17-10 with 1:15 left in the half on a 1-yard run by Arian Foster, who gained all 47 yards on the drive on five rushes. Manning had set them up with another big kickoff return. He ran 35 yards before being horse-collared by Gostkowski, who was called for a 15-yard penalty.

Manning's first kickoff return set up Graham's opening field goal just 1:03 into the game.

That early score was in stark contrast to Houston's first game against New England, a 42-14 loss in which the Texans trailed 21-0 at halftime.

The Patriots punted on their first two possessions before taking charge.

After a poor punt by Donnie Jones gave them the ball at their 35, Ridley rushed 14 yards on the first play, then lost 2 on the next. Brady then connected on three straight passes: 13 yards to Ridley, 25 to Vereen and 14 to Aaron Hernandez.

Vereen ran in from the 1-yard line on the next play.

After Gostkowski's field goal, Jones punted again for Houston and New England started at its 20. With a second-and-3 at the Patriots 39, Brady hit Wes Welker for a 47-yard completion down the left sideline. It was Welker's 59th postseason catch, a New England club record, and he had 131 yards receiving on eight catches after three quarters.

On the next play, Vereen drifted out to the left with no Texan nearby and scored 3:38 before intermission.

The Patriots had early troubles on offense, punting on their first two possessions. Brady was sacked once, with NFL sacks leader J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed sharing credit for it.

In the first meeting with the Texans, Brady threw three touchdown passes on the Patriots' first three possessions.

The winner of Sunday's game will host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game next Sunday.

New England's victory over Houston in Foxborough on Dec. 10 began the Texans' stretch of three losses in their last four regular-season games that cost them a playoff bye and home-field advantage.

But Houston beat the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 in a wild-card game to advance to Sunday's rematch, the first playoff meeting between the Texans and Patriots.

AFC East champion New England had a first-round bye and is the top remaining AFC seed after the No. 1 Denver Broncos lost to the No. 4 Ravens 38-35 in double overtime on Saturday.

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Ravens path to AFC North title gets slightly easier as Steelers' Roethlisberger out for rest of 2019 season

Ravens path to AFC North title gets slightly easier as Steelers' Roethlisberger out for rest of 2019 season

No NFL player, coach, or fan should ever wish an injury upon anyone. But in wake of one injury, the Ravens' quest to win back-to-back AFC North titles has likely become a lot easier.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss the remainder of the 2019 NFL season, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin announced in a statement on Monday. 

Roethlisberger suffered an injury to his right elbow during the team's loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Late Sunday evening, the team medical staff determined he would need surgery, effectively ending his 2019 campaign.

"Ben Roethlisberger had an MRI on his right elbow Sunday evening and it was determined by the Steelers’ medical team that surgery will be required," Tomlin said. "We expect the surgery will be scheduled for this week. He will be placed on our Reserve/Injured List and is out for the season."

Mason Rudolph, the team's third-round pick in 2018, will replace their future Hall of Fame QB for the time being.

Even if Roethlisberger's injury had not occurred, through two weeks, the Ravens looked like the team to beat in the division. Baltimore is undefeated, while Pittsburgh dropped their first two contests.  The Ravens, according to fivethirtyeight.com, have a 72-percent chance to make the playoffs, the fifth-highest percentage in the NFL.

Since 2010, either Pittsburgh or Baltimore has won all but two AFC North titles.

The Ravens get their first crack at Rudolph and the Steelers in just three weeks, when Baltimore will travel to Pittsburgh on Oct. 6.

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What the Ravens' 2-0 start says about the team’s playoff chances

What the Ravens' 2-0 start says about the team’s playoff chances

After two games, the Ravens are in as good of a position as they could be in with a 2-0 record. 

But the team’s start, paired with the rest of the AFC North, has the Ravens sitting in an excellent spot after just two weeks. 

The Ravens 2-0 record doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot, far from it in fact. But a quick glance around the rest of the league shows the Ravens are in a better spot than might be imagined.

According to Oddsshark.com, 98 teams have started 2-0 since the 2007 season. Of those 98 teams, 54 teams have made the playoffs and 44 missed out. The Ravens, according to fivethirtyeight.com, have a 72 percent chance to make the playoffs (fifth-highest), a 63 percent chance to win the division (third-highest) and a six percent chance to win the Super Bowl (fifth-highest). 

So while the odds are in the Ravens favor, there’s still work to do.

Statistically, and without context, a 2-0 start only means the Ravens have a roughly better chance than 50-50 to make the postseason. 

The biggest start to the Ravens season, however, is how the rest of the AFC North fared in the season’s first two weeks. 

The Steelers and Bengals started 0-2 and the Browns, who play Monday against the Jets, are 0-1. While a 2-0 start doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot, an 0-2 start has nearly been a death-knell for NFL teams since 2007.

Of the 98 teams to start 0-2 since 2007, only 12 have made the postseason — a percentage of just 12.2 percent. 

Of the seven teams to start 0-2 last season, two of them (Houston and Seattle) made the playoffs. Those teams, statistically, are the anomaly. 

Context included, the Ravens have had a strong showing, albeit against two teams expected to be at the bottom of the NFL standings this year. 

Lamar Jackson is one of two quarterbacks in the NFL that has thrown for seven touchdowns and no interceptions. The other is Pat Mahomes, who will face the Ravens in week three. The defense, while it had its rough patches against the Cardinals Air Raid offense, held strong in the red zone. 

With Kansas City upcoming, the chance to not only increase the Ravens playoff chances exists, but also the opportunity to state their claim as one of the best teams in the NFL.

The Ravens aren’t guaranteed anything, especially with their upcoming stretch of games against the Chiefs, Browns, Steelers and Bengals, when their division lead can evaporate. 

But paired with their start, and the rest of the division’s start, the chance to offer a knockout blow to the rest of the division in the early weeks is there for the taking. 

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