New England's Tom Brady broke the record for most NFL playoff wins by a quarterback as the Patriots beat the Houston Texans 41-28 on Sunday, while the Atlanta Falcons escaped a big Seattle Seahawks comeback to also reach the last four.
Brady passed former San Francisco 49ers great Joe Montana by notching his 17th postseason win.
If Brady can lead the Patriots past the Baltimore Ravens next week, then win the Super Bowl, he'll equal the 49ers' Hall of Famer for NFL championships.
Brady has guided the Patriots to five Super Bowls, winning the first three; Montana was 4 for 4 in the big game, playing for Brady's hometown team.
"I grew up a 49ers fan,'' Brady said.
"Joe Montana and Steve Young ... those guys are in another class.''
Next up is Baltimore, who stunned top-seeded Denver in double overtime Saturday. The Ravens were beaten 23-20 by the Patriots at the same stage last year, but did beat New England in their only meeting this season.
"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 favourite target the past six years. The AFC's top receiver with 118 catches this season, Welker looked like he might reach that total against Houston's befuddled defence. He caught six in the first half for 120 yards, including a 47-yarder, and wound up with eight for 131.
And the 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 hope I am around for a few more years,'' the 35-year-old Brady said.
"I love playing, I love competing ...''
The boost from Vereen offset the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) and running back Danny Woodhead (thumb) in the first quarter.
"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.''
New England's defence helped put away the Texans. Rob Ninkovich's leaping third-quarter interception stopped a drive, and six plays later, Brady hit Brandon Lloyd for a 6-yard score.
Although the Texans got two fourth-quarter TDs on passes by Matt Schaub, their season ended with four defeats in their last six games. That slump cost the AFC South champions the top seed in the playoffs, forcing a trip to New England after they beat Cincinnati in the wild-card round.
Unlike their 42-14 loss here a month ago, the Texans didn't fold early.
J.J. Watt, their dominating defensive end, bothered Brady, and when they fell behind 17-3, they had the fortitude to climb back.
Arian Foster did all the work after Danieal Manning's second big kickoff return, this one a 35-yarder that had a 15-yard penalty tacked on when kicker Stephen Gostkowski brought down Manning with a horse-collar tackle. Foster 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.
Houston forced a three-and-out, and a short punt gave the Texans another hot just before halftime. They got close enough for Shayne Graham to kick a 55-yard field goal as the half ended.
But the Patriots pulled away in the third quarter for coach Bill Belichick's 17th postseason win, third behind Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19).
Houston wasted their momentum by allowing a quick touchdown drive to open the third period. Brady went to the familiar (Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez) on that series before second-year back Stevan Ridley scored on an 8-yard burst.
| The top-seeded Falcons needed a last-minute field goal for a nervy 30-28 win over the Seahawks [Reuters]
In Atlanta, the Falcons blew a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter but escaped with a 30-28 win when Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds left.
The Falcons looked like they had allowed the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL playoff history when Seattle's Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left.
But Matt Ryan completed two long passes after the kickoff, setting up Bryant's winning kick and sending the Falcons to the NFC championship game for only the third time in franchise history. They will host the San Francisco 49ers next Sunday.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson passed for two touchdowns and ran for another, but it wasn't enough.
The rookie finished with 385 yards passing and did all he could to lead the Seahawks back from a 27-7 deficit entering the fourth quarter. When Lynch powered over in the final minute, a play set up by Wilson's brilliant scramble, Seattle celebrated like they would be moving on.
Ryan, who had struggled in his first three playoff appearances, had just enough time to rally the Falcons. He hooked up with Harry Douglas on a 29-yard pass in front of the Falcons bench, and coach Mike Smith quickly signalled a timeout. Then, Ryan went down the middle to his favourite target, tight end Tony Gonzalez, a Hall of Famer-to-be playing what could've been his final game.
Gonzalez hauled in the 19-yard throw, and Smith called his final timeout with 13 seconds remaining. Instead of risking another play and having the clock run out, he sent Bryant in for the field goal try.
The Seahawks called time just before the ball was snapped, and Bryant's kick sailed right of the upright. That turned out to be nothing more than practice. The next one was right down the middle, giving the Falcons a stunning victory.
Wilson's last throw, a desperation heave into the end zone, was intercepted by Falcons receiver Julio Jones.