He had six catches for 120 yards at the half, and he finished the game with eight catches for 131 yards. It wasn’t like many people noticed, though, with everything else that was happening. On a day that saw key injuries, the further emergence of the Patriots’ running game and a New England defense continue to ascend, Welker’s numbers appeared to be just filler.
But Welker is still a huge part of the Patriots’ attack, and what he did Sunday showed why he — not Gronkowski, not Woodhead, not Shane Vereen or Stevan Ridley or Brandon Lloyd or Aaron Hernandez — could be the most important factor heading into what New England hopes will be its final two wins of the season.
Consider when Welker racked up his yardage. New England got to its 24-13 lead on the back of a strong first half, when Tom Brady continued to find Welker to extend drives. Whether it was in his usual position, catching passes underneath, or in what may have been the play of the game, a ridiculous over-the-shoulder bomb from Brady along the left sideline, Welker could once again be relied on to make plays and keep drives alive when it counted most.
That’s not to say that Hernandez, Lloyd, Vereen, Ridley and Woodhead do not do the same. If anything, this Patriots’ attack is quite balanced, with catches and yards spread evenly among the receivers, and anyone capable of making a play if his route comes open.
But the comfort that Brady has had with Welker this year and in past seasons is what makes New England so reliable. Plenty of guys will be targeted for plays, but when Brady really needs a connection, he needs Welker.
That’s why Welker is the key cog heading into the AFC Championship Game, and hopefully the Super Bowl, for New England. It’s also why Welker needs to bring his best game — because, for as good as he has been, he may also be the reason the Patriots could come up short again.
The Patriots’ margin of error has shrunk considerably with Gronkowski out. Whereas the team is stacked when it has all its weapons, it must instead beat matchups without the likes of Gronkowski, Welker, Hernandez or Lloyd being that extra, elite receiver.
Third downs are harder to complete. Big plays are more difficult to come upon. Must-make catches really must be made.
That’s where Welker’s job becomes vital. While he won’t carry the burden of the entire offense, he will be looked to when the Patriots really need a completion, and he will be asked to make the toughest catches in the smallest spaces.
Welker never seemed to have a problem filling this role in the past, but a cloud hangs over him heading into these playoffs. Last year, on the biggest stage, when the Patriots needed him more than ever, Welker dropped a key second-down pass in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. It was a mistake anyone could make, and the disconsolate Welker has far outweighed that one moment with his reams of other big plays.
But that catch has hung like an albatross since. It was there when Welker was working on getting a new contract, and into this season, when Welker didn’t have as much playing time in the first few games. It’s been there with every drop he’s had since — and this season, whether it’s true or not, he has seemed to have a lot more drops.
While the story of the Patriots returning to the Super Bowl is often written as the team getting its fourth title in six tries, of Brady and Bill Belichick capping off what they started together a dozen years ago, and of the franchise returning to glory, almost all of the current Patriots never tasted that initial success — including Welker. Welker arrived when the Patriots needed some offense after Brady and his spare parts couldn’t get the team back to the big game. Welker has done his job and gone to the Super Bowl twice, but he’s never won one.
The loss of Gronkowski will be another major storyline going into Sunday’s game, and whether Vereen and Ridley can continue their magic on the ground is important. But whether Brady and Welker rediscover that formerly flawless connection in the slot could be the biggest factor against the Ravens.
The Patriots have plenty of good players, and they can allow mistakes among most of the ranks, as long as everyone mostly does his job. But with Welker, they’ve always had one better than that — someone who always makes it happen.
Welker wants that first title, and he wants to avenge what has been a year of doubt. He can do both starting this Sunday.