Now it gets real for the Patriots: Two more wins to title No. 5

— -- FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Gillette Stadium soundtrack during TV timeouts is ripped from a 1980s middle school dance, but somehow it fits. As The Outfield wails that they don't wanna lose your love tonight, Rick Astley swears he's never gonna give you up and The Knack thumps out an ode to their Sharona, it can feel as if the New England Patriots have been playing the same playoff game here for 30 or 40 years.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have beaten nine different teams in the divisional round of the playoffs, and Saturday night's 34-16 victory delivered them to a sixth straight AFC Championship Game. This season's Houston Texans were a thornier, more determined jimsonweed than most anticipated, but Brady finally shook them free from his designer peacoat in the fourth quarter Saturday night with help from his defense. Dicey as it got, the Patriots never trailed, and they'll be right back here next Sunday to host the AFC Championship Game in front of 66,000 New Englanders who just wanna rock 'n' roll all night and party every day.

It might feel rote, but it's about to get real. The inevitable portion of the Patriots' season has ended. When you get to the AFC Championship Game six straight years, it's what happens next that matters.

Whoever the Patriots play next week -- the Kansas City Chiefs or Pittsburgh Steelers -- will be their toughest opponent since Week 7. If the Patriots win, they'll face the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers or Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl LI. Everything the Patriots have gone through to overcome Brady's Deflategate suspension and cap his revenge tour comes down to next week and, ideally, a game two weeks later in Houston. Everything that has happened so far feels as if it was supposed to happen, and it has delivered them within two tough wins of a fifth Brady-Belichick Super Bowl title.

"We know this is just the beginning," tight end Martellus Bennett said. "And we have to play better if we want to get to where we want to go."

That was the clear and obvious message in the postgame locker room, where the players were obviously happy to have won but dissatisfied with the way they had played. Running back Dion Lewis scored three touchdowns, but his mind was on two fumbles. Brady completed only 47 percent of his passes and wasn't exactly walking on sunshine about it.

"It doesn't feel great," Brady said. "We work pretty hard to play a lot better than we played."

The silver lining here, if you're a Patriots fan, is that the Patriots didn't look their best Saturday because they didn't need to. They haven't needed to for a while. They've won eight games in a row, but the only team they've played during that time that finished the season in the top 20 in passer rating was the Miami Dolphins. Houston's defense gave New England everything it had Saturday, but none of that mattered once Brock Osweiler started throwing interceptions.

What makes the Brady-Belichick Patriots great is their array of options to beat you. They have the best scoring defense in the NFL and a range of offensive weapons so diverse that they can tailor each week's game plan to the opponent. One week it might be Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan who beat you. The next it might be Lewis and James White. LeGarrette Blount had just eight carries in this contest, and Bennett had just four targets in the passing game; but you know either or both could be the primary focus of the offense next week.

"We had to make adjustments tonight," Edelman said. "We had to just keep on playing and find something, and we did that."

They always seem to, and now every bit of that malleability must lift them two more times. This year's Patriots have shown us flashes of who they can be. Given what we've seen, and given the history of the people in the team's two most important positions, it's easy to believe they can elevate their game beyond what has so far been required. If anything, Saturday's performance reminded them that they must.

"We've got to improve," Edelman said. "It's one thing to win one game in the playoffs, but that's not where our mind is at."

The Patriots' minds are on Houston, where three weeks from now, organizational nemesis Roger Goodell will hand someone a Lombardi trophy. New England hasn't exactly had to fight for its right to party, but the Patriots have earned it nonetheless. Two more wins are all Brady needs to slip a ring on his thumb and jam it into the NFL's eye.

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