For the second postseason weekend in a row, Tom Brady will look over to the sideline of an opponent whose nickname suggests a horse fascination and see a receiver whose name is on the short list of his all-time favorite targets.
Last Saturday night in Foxborough, it was Deion Branch, the easygoing and ever-reliable former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, who signed with in the Colts during the week building up to the game.
Since he didn’t dress and whatever super-secret intel he might have supplied didn’t prevent the Colts from losing by 21 points, it’s fair to believe he remains in good standing in New England after most likely punctuating his career with a dollar sign. Anyone who takes $23,000 out of an Irsay’s pocket is fine by us.
This Sunday, in the AFC Championship Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver (that name has the same it’s-not-that-different-if-you-squint desperation as the New Boston Garden), the receiver reunion is a bit more complicated.
Wes Welker, who in six seasons with the Patriots averaged 112 catches per season as a featured player in one of the most electrifying offenses in pro football history, is on on the other side now. He traded in the Flying Elvis for the flyin’ Elways, joining forces with the second-greatest quarterback of this generation after a contentious departure from the Patriots.
Because of this — because this story remains unfinished, with a pivotal chapter due Sunday afternoon — it’s premature to put his place in Patriots history into perspective.
But I’ll say this: I don’t believe Sunday should stand as a referendum on whether they did the right thing on letting him go, no matter how Welker and the receivers the Patriots ultimately replaced him with perform in this game.
I think the conclusion is already obvious, as cold as it seemed at the time:
Parting ways with Wes Welker when they did was the right move.
Sure, it would have been better had he ended up in, say, St. Louis, where he couldn’t have a direct effect on the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes, as he does in Denver as one of Manning’s four exceptional pass-catchers.
But given Welker’s age (he turns 33 in May), his health issues (he’s wearing a Mark Kelso tribute helmet nowadays because of his troubling concussion issues), the Patriots’ knack for finding capable slot receivers, and a set of hands that aren’t as sure to corral the football as they were when he first came to New England, the parting of ways is no longer as puzzling as it was when it happened.
And I don’t know about you, but I was puzzled. I fully concede my perspective has rotated 180 degrees on this since he signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos in March.
Here are a couple of lines from what I pecked out in the immediate aftermath of the news he’d turned down a lukewarm offer of two years and $10 million from the Patriots to join their AFC rival:
Welker is still a pass-catching machine in the slot, and anyone who thinks someone such as Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola is capable of matching his production simply isn’t giving him his due.
Well, tackled for a loss on that prediction, huh? Then there’s this:
They thought he would be their bargain. Instead, they drove him to become a rival’s bargain. And like that, the once-perfect marriage between Welker and the Patriots is shattered.
Let’s reconsider that first quote. While the Patriots did miss Welker’s dependability during the chaotic attempts to find a productive receiving corps earlier in the season, Edelman (105 catches) seized his opportunity to the point that he could receive similar free-agent riches this offseason.
And while Amendola missed four games with a groin injury that would have ended most players’ seasons, his final statistics were not that much below Welker’s — he had 54 receptions for 633 yards compared to Welker’s 73 for 778 in 13 games. Welker did have 10 touchdowns to Amendola’s two, however.
I do wonder, considering the comments of Broncos defensive back Mike Adams this week, if Denver is underestimating Edelman, a much more dangerous open-field threat than Welker ever was.
“I can’t compare the two because Wes is — he’s something special,” said Adams on Monday. “He can jive up the ball and then speed out and have you off balance. Edelman, he doesn’t do that. He’s a one-speed guy. He doesn’t have the same ability or the quickness that Wes has in the slot. I guess that is the main difference between them. They’re totally different players.”
As for the the “shattered” marriage between the Patriots and Welker … well, that turned out to be true. Welker explained to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard in August how his relationship with Bill Belichick deteriorated, noting a specific instance of the coach calling him out harshly in front of the team.
“It was just kind of hard,” Welker said. “One of those deals where you have to endure him, put up with him . . . But he does it to everybody, it’s the way he is.”
Welker’s subversive sense of humor didn’t go over well with Belichick — the receiver acknowledged in his first days with the Broncos that he was cautious with his words because he was still in the habit of worrying about saying something that would anger Belichick.
It makes you wonder if the turning point in their relationship was this moment of good-natured, Rex Ryan-mocking genius, which got Welker benched for the first series in a playoff loss to the Jets in 2010.
Maybe we didn’t recognize it in March, but there is also the matter of performance — specifically, diminished performance or glaring mistakes when the stakes were highest. For all of the passes Welker caught with the Patriots — 672 in the regular season — he will never escape the lingering memories of a couple of passes he didn’t catch in the postseason.
There was the late drop of an imperfect-but-catchable Brady throw late in Super Bowl XLVI …
… that would have given the Patriots a first down and most likely allowed them to run out the clock. And no, I don’t expect anyone to watch that above clip, though there’s a mildly amusing twist at the end.
He also had a crucial drop in his final game as a Patriot, last year’s AFC Championship Game. He couldn’t hold on to a third-and-8 pass from Brady at the Baltimore 34 with the Patriots holding a 13-7 lead in the third quarter. From there, Baltimore rolled, scoring the game’s final 21 points.
The issue has come with him to Denver. Welker had 10 drops — second-most in the league to Chicago’s Brandon Marshall — in 111 targets during the 2013 regular season, and he had what could have been a costly one in the Broncos win over the Chargers Sunday.
Welker wore the goat horns on his Broncos helmet after the Patriots’ 34-31 overtime win earlier this season, botching a punt that led to the winning field goal. The chance to avenge that against the team he used to play for is undoubtedly on his mind this week.
If he comes through and the Broncos go on to win the Super Bowl, Welker will have a place secured in Denver franchise lore that eluded him here.
Maybe he’ll even have his Deion Branch, Super Bowl Superstar moment.
And if he does not come through?
It will simply be added to his list of big-game missteps, further validating the decision to part ways with the most productive receiver the Patriots have ever had but for a few faltering moments when Tom Brady needed him most.