Wes Welker's Knee and Patriots' Playoff Hopes Have One Thing in Common

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Wes Welker's Knee and Patriots' Playoff Hopes Have One Thing in Common
Bob Levey/Getty Images

They're shredded.

I'm not saying the Patriots can't win the playoffs, but to do so would be a feat on par with what the 2007 Giants pulled off during their improbable run to the title.

Now, this is not a knee-jerk reaction (tell me you saw that one coming).

This is a simple fact: the Patriots, already on shaky ground to begin with entering the playoffs, now have to attempt to outscore teams without their most potent weapon.

This is for one reason and one reason only: blitz protection.

The Patriots do not have an offensive line that is so talented that it can swallow up extra pass rushers. Not many teams in the NFL do.

Most offensive lines live with the fact that if a team brings more than six rushers, there's going to be one free guy. In an 11-on-11 sport, that means there's an open receiver that the quarterback has to find and hit before he gets pancaked.

Teams can disguise coverages, they can use a running back or tight end to block, but generally it comes down to five or six trying to block six or seven, and it's up to the quarterback to hit his hot read.

Wes Welker was that hot read.

Brady can get rid of the ball extremely quickly, but the issue now is that teams can blitz Brady on any and all passing downs and know that, even if Brady finds Julian Edelman, they're going to get a nice big hit on a guy with, reportedly, three broken ribs and a broken ring finger.

Now, Belichick vehemently disputed the report today, going so far as to truly level Charlie Casserly's reputation when asked about Brady's ribs. The Providence Journal's Shalise Manza Young confirmed the report, though ESPN's Adam Schefter said his source put Brady's broken ring finger as his biggest worry.

It's impossible to truly know, although if Brady's got broken ribs and the Patriots aren't saying, that's a big league issue. For the purposes here, we'll just assume the ring finger is broken, and he's banged up regardless.

Still, Baltimore's gameplan will most likely look an awful lot like what former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan brought out in week two when the Patriots were in a similar situation: Brady looking shaky and playing hurt, the offensive line without key personnel, and no Wes Welker.

The Jets responded by doing what they've done most of this year. They brought bags of pressure, extra blitzers, and survived on man coverage against New England's receiving corps.

The Ravens don't have a Darrelle Revis to play shutdown corner on Randy Moss, but the Patriots also don't have a potent second weapon to make the Ravens think twice about Ed Reed staying in Randy Moss' back pocket all game.

It all comes down to what the Patriots can do without Welker. Edelman is a reasonable facsimile of the little slot man, and the yardage will certainly be there for him. The issue is whether or not those yards come in key situations, when the Ravens bring a third down blitz and the first down is what matters.

Edelman was productive against Houston and in his first start against the Jets, but productivity alone won't be enough. He needs to get those yards at the right time for New England to succeed and keep his quarterback on his feet.

Long story short: the Ravens are going to try and hit Brady, and hard.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Baltimore will walk away from Gillette Stadium with a victory, mind you. The issue here is that Brady will take a pounding on Sunday, win or lose.

The key to the Patriots going anywhere in the playoffs will rely entirely on their ability to keep the Ravens on their back foot.

They're going to have to pull all the old tricks out of the bag: bubble and tight end screens, short slant routes, a lot of draw and delay run plays, and try and run the ball until the play action becomes an effective way to get Randy Moss the ball in space.

If they can do that, they can move the ball on this Ravens team, at a penalty. Depending on how serious the injuries to Brady are, he may wake up on Monday morning wishing they were staying home for the winter.

The key to the New England offense will end up being the success of their run game and their ability to utilize their tight ends.

Over the past few weeks, they've done that much more than in the past, working in more power running sets and passing out of two tight end formations.

They've also gotten the ball to their tight end much more in 2009 than in the previous two seasons. Benjamin Watson had just 22 receptions and two touchdowns in 14 games in 2008, yet managed 29 receptions for five touchdowns in just 12 games this season.

On top of that, New England has gotten the ball to veteran Chris Baker—an offseason acquisition who is a better blocker, though not quite as athletic, as Watson—on 14 pass plays this year, with two going for touchdowns.

But most important for this New England team may be their young defense. Brady can't hang in there and keep getting hit, not if he's carrying as many injuries as he seems to be.

Even though the offensive line is deeper than it seemed to be at the beginning of the year, it's unlikely you'll see the air-it-out four wide receiver sets too frequently this postseason.

It will be up to the young defenders like Brandon Meriweather, Jerod Mayo, and the more veteran guys like Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden to patch together a playoff run where they can't expect to outscore every team 34-30.

With Welker likely out for the playoffs, Edelman perhaps not ready to be the same type of weapon, and Brady's injury secret out, that may be their only chance in a playoff pool filled with great offensive teams.

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