FOXBOROUGH — Scratched and bloodied, sore and swollen, bandaged and black and blue, Wes Welker took his time getting dressed, his back facing a growing media swarm surrounding his locker.
When he finally turned around, slowly, the pained look on Welker’s face told a familiar playoff story throughout his time with the Patriots. He caught plenty of balls and gained plenty of yards, but missed opportunities, including by him, left a lasting mark in another disappointing postseason loss.
Welker caught eight passes for a game-high 117 yards, and scored the lone Patriots’ touchdown on Sunday, a 1-yarder from Tom Brady in the second quarter. Those were the personal highlights, such as they were, in a 28-13 loss to the Ravens in the AFC Championship game.
Hard to forget for many, though, will be the ball Welker dropped in the third quarter that might have helped swing the momentum Baltimore’s way. With the Patriots holding a 13-7 advantage they took into halftime, they faced third-and-8 from the Ravens’ 34-yard-line on their first possession of the second half, looking to build a two-possession lead.
Brady lofted a pass toward the left sideline to an open Welker, who would have had enough yards for a first down. But the ball hit Welker square in the hands and then fell to the ground, a costly drop that forced the Patriots to punt. The Ravens scored on the ensuing possession, taking a 14-13 lead, and never trailed again.
Maybe not as damaging as the drop in the Super Bowl loss a year ago, but still significant. And Welker knew it.
“It was just a missed opportunity,” Welker said softly.
He had absorbed another crushing hit three plays earlier, when he held on for a 24-yard completion, then took a helmet-to-helmet blow from adversary Bernard Pollard, which tacked on 15 yards with a personal foul penalty. The Patriots have faced the Ravens enough times over the years to know what a physical game it would be. Welker seemed to receive an extra dose of punishment.
“Obviously they’re a good defense. They have good rushers, good defensive backs, good linebackers, so across the board they’re tough,” Welker said. “It’s always hard, you put a lot into it, all year-round, and you want to finish strong. We just didn’t do it.”
Not this time. But was his dejected walk off the Gillette Stadium field Sunday night the final time Welker will be seen wearing a Patriots jersey? He’ll become an unrestricted free agent after the season, but the team could place the franchise tag on him, like it did last year. The sides weren’t able to agree on a long-term deal.
“I’m not sure, I’m not worried about that right now,” Welker said, when asked if he thinks he’ll be back with the team.
Does the uncertainty of the upcoming offseason bother him? “I’m really not worried about it at all. It’s a tough loss, and [I’ll] just try to get over it at the moment.”
Would he be frustrated if the Patriots placed another franchise tag on him? “Like I said, I’m not worried about any of that.”
Welker has caught at least one pass in every game he’s played with the Patriots, and became the franchise’s career leader in receptions earlier this season. Respected for his toughness — which was on display once again Sunday — and consistent production, Welker would certainly attract big-money offers should he hit the free agent market. The Patriots, either through the franchise tag or a long-term deal, might not be inclined to let that happen. It figures to be one of the team’s closely followed story lines in the offseason.
In his six seasons with the Patriots, Welker has made the playoffs five times, and lost two Super Bowls. For many organizations, advancing to the conference championship game signifies a great season. This isn’t one of them, Welker said.
“That’s not the case at all.”
He’s confident that the window to win an elusive Super Bowl with the Patriots remains open. He’ll start preparing for next season, wherever that might be. First, though, he’ll need to digest another bitter playoff loss.
“I think they’re all tough, no matter how old you are or anything else,” Welker said.
How will he deal with it? “Same way I did last time. The sun will come up tomorrow, and you just try to move on.”