FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Catch him.
That's all that was going through Devin McCourty's mind as he chased after Danieal Manning. Manning had taken the opening kickoff of Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans and, after a stutter fake on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, ran away from everyone else.
The Patriots defensive back dragged Manning down at the New England 12 after a 94-yard return.
That might have been the biggest play of the Patriots' 41-28 victory that propelled New England to the AFC championship game next Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots defense held the Texans to just three yards in three plays and forced a 27-yard field goal from Shayne Graham. McCourty's hustle not only saved four points but provided a big momentum swing.
"Huge play," said Coach Bill Belichick. "The defense went in there and had a big stop on the sudden change on the big return. That was really a huge series in the game. We didn't get off to a good start, but at least minimized the damage."
And that's all McCourty wanted to do.
"First thing I was thinking was just, 'Get him down, give our defense a chance to get out there and try to hold them to three points and not just give them seven points easily.'" said McCourty.
McCourty's play and the ensuing defensive stand did a lot to deflate the Texans.
"We can't settle down there, especially against a team like this in their building," said Houston quarterback Matt Schaub. "We've got to get (touchdowns) down there."
Linebacker Jerod Mayo said McCourty's touchdown-saving tackle inspired the defense.
"I remember when we went out there, guys were like, 'Let's hold them to a field goal,'" he said. "That's huge when you can do that and they have great field position. Guys came out and made plays, and we held them."
WITH BALTIMORE coming in for the AFC championship game for the second consecutive year, Mayo was asked if he got the sense that the Ravens don't like the Patriots.
"They don't like us?" he asked, almost incredulously.
"We don't get that sense," he continued. "We get the sense that every time we get together, it's a good football game. Hopefully it's the same this week. And hopefully we're on the right side."
The Patriots won last year's game, 23-20. This will be the first AFC championship game rematch since the 1986-87 seasons -- when Denver and Cleveland played back-to-back -- and the fourth since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
The Patriots are 7-1 in AFC championship games, including 4-0 at home. They're 5-1 under Belichick.
IT WAS a good day for Tom Brady. The Patriots' victory was his 17th in the playoffs, giving him more postseason wins that any quarterback in NFL history. He passed his idol, Joe Montana, who won 16 with San Francisco and Kansas City.
He also moved to the top of the list in playoff winning percentage (.739, on a 17-6 mark).
And with three touchdown passes, he now has 41 in the postseason, making him only the third quarterback in NFL history to have thrown at least 40 playoff touchdown passes. Montana had 45 and Brett Favre had 44.
CORNERBACK AQIB TALIB was matched up all day with Houston receiver Andre Johnson. And while Johnson caught eight passes for 95 yards, Talib had a pretty good day. He tied safety Steve Gregory for the team lead with 10 tackles, nine of which were solo.
"As a cornerback you want to go against the best guys in the biggest games," he said. "And if the coach believes in you enough to match up with those guys, you can't complain."
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: