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FOXBOROUGH — Shane Vereen has had games with bigger personal numbers during his brief time with the Patriots, but he’s never made a bigger impact.
Vereen, thrust into a larger role because of an injury to fellow running back Danny Woodhead on the game’s first play from scrimmage, turned Sunday’s 41-28 victory over Houston into a Texas-sized breakout performance.
Vereen touched the ball 12 times. He reached the end zone on three of them, scoring a rushing touchdown and two on receptions, and lifting the Patriots into the AFC Championship game next Sunday against Baltimore.
Earlier in the week, Texans coach Gary Kubiak said that for a team to advance this time of year, it takes contributions from unexpected sources. Vereen certainly qualifies.
“I don’t come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play. I come in ready to go, and if my number is called, I do my best for the team,” Vereen said. “It’s just great to have a team win. To come out here, together, and play the way that we did, people stepped up all over.”
Nobody more than the second-year pro from Cal, who didn’t even suit up for the Patriots’ postseason march last season. He was inactive for the first three games of the 2012 season with an injury, but has played now in 14 straight, doing enough when he gets the chance for the team to keep him in the game plan.
There have been a few highlights, even before Sunday. Vereen caught an 83-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady against the Jets on Thanksgiving night, when he also carried 10 times for 42 yards. A 49-yard rushing effort in the first Jets game marked his season high.
It still is, but Vereen helped give the Patriots a solid running attack against the Texans, as he gained 41 yards on seven carries. He was even more effective catching passes, hauling in five of the six that were thrown his way, for 83 yards.
Those are numbers typically next to Woodhead’s name after a Patriots’ victory. But when he was lost to a left thumb injury on the first offensive play, the door was opened for Vereen. He only came charging through.
“Last year I wasn’t even playing in the playoffs, and this year I was able to make an impact,” Vereen said.
How big? “Shane had a great game. Really just a huge growing-up moment for him, so very special,” said Brady, who threw for 344 yards.
Vereen was the player hand-selected for what felt like the exclamation-point touchdown, a 33-yard deep pass from Brady early in the fourth quarter that extended the Patriots’ lead to 38-13, pretty much ending any outside hope Houston had at a comeback.
His prettiest touchdown of the night, down the left sideline, gave him three for the game. Coming into Sunday, he had four TDs on the season.
“It’s a play we put in earlier this week, we repped it a couple of times, and when the play was called I was just able to get open,” said Vereen, who caught a perfect pass from Brady despite tight coverage, managed to get both feet inbounds, and just snuck inside the pylon.
Earlier, Vereen had given the Patriots their first lead on a 1-yard run late in the first quarter. His first touchdown reception, an 8-yarder in the second quarter when he was left all alone in the left flat, pushed the Patriots’ lead to 17-3.
Vereen finished with 124 all-purpose yards, easily his most on the season. It might have taken an injury to Woodhead, but opportunity comes in all shapes and sizes. Vereen was ready when his arrived.
“We hate to lose Woody, he’s such a key part of our offense,’’ Vereen said. “But at the same time, all the running backs hold ourselves accountable, to be able to step up when somebody does [go down]. The whole team stepped up. We were able to execute.”