(Originally posted on 4SportBoston.com )
This just isn't how it was supposed to be...
Just two weeks ago, riding high after their first road victory over a determined Buffalo Bills team as well as a neat and tidy drubbing of the Jacksonville Jaguars at home, the Patriots had shored up their playoff position and had just enough momentum behind them to make some serious noise in the playoffs. All that remained was one meaningless game in the warm Houston, Texas weather.
Then all living hell broke loose.
In the first quarter, Wes Welker caught his 123rd pass of the season (16 more receptions than the Giants' Steve Smith, who was second in the league with 107), made a cut he's made 3,000 times in his career to try to get farther up field and collapsed in pain. An absolutely metaphorical sucker-punch to the diaphragm knocked the collective wind out of Patriots fans everywhere.
Sure, the Patriots still have a puncher's chance. They have the best quarterback, the best coach, and enough supplementary weapons to compete with the best teams in the league (none of which are playing especially great football at the moment anyway). In addition, rookie Julian Edelman stepped up with a terrific performance in Welker's absence against Houston raking in 10 catches for 103 yards. But, make no mistake, Edelman is not Wes Welker.
We've all witnessed the striking similarities between the two slot receivers: They're both explosively quick, they possess tremendous pass-catching ability, as well as demonstrating unique grit and toughness on the playing field at a position rife with divas throughout the league. They both also have in them the immeasurably valuable gift of being able to deliver bone-crunching blocks that can knock the most ferocious of linebackers on their rear-ends, which is not only fantastic to watch, but essential in extending plays and creating open-space opportunities for other play makers.
However, it's impossible not to look past the fact Tom Brady calls Wes Welker the smartest receiver he's ever worked with. It's not hard to see how he's developed into that type of player, either. At a mere 5 foot 9 inches, Welker has had to fine-tune every part of his game in order to now stand head-and-shoulders above all other slot receivers (and most wide-outs as well) in the NFL.
After going undrafted out of Texas Tech, he was picked up by Miami and played for three seasons there (with a game stint in San Diego in the 2004-2005 season). All the while, applying every bit of experience and knowledge he picked up along the way to make himself the best player he possibly could be. Then, in one of the flat-out stupidest draft-day decisions in modern history, Miami traded Welker to the New England Patriots for a second-round pick, then used their round pick to replace him with Ted Ginn, Jr., passing on potential franchise quarterback Brady Quinn in the process. Since then, Welker has cut a swath through NFL defenses bringing in over 110 catches in three consecutive seasons and single-handedly moving the chains for fresh sets of downs nearly as often as the chain crew themselves.
Welker's size does hinder his red-zone abilities, however, and his four touchdowns this season are the fewest (tied with Anquan Boldin and Greg Jennings) among players with over 1,000 receiving yards. However, Boldin and Jennings COMBINED for only 29 more receptions than Welker alone. His value is beyond "petty" scoring...
So, the Patriots must press on without him, and will allow Julian Edelman to be truly tested against the Ravens in a playoff match-up that will pit the third-ranked offense against the third-ranked defense. Since Welker's absence means their opponent no longer needs to pick their poison between he and Randy Moss, the performance of Edelman and other seldom-used receiving targets such as Sam Aiken and Benjamin Watson will be exponentially important in tomorrow's match-up.
Contrary to recent history, the most intriguing match-up isn't where one would expect, between New England's offense and Baltimore's defense, but rather between the ground game(s) of both teams. While Baltimore would seem to have the edge on paper (fifth in the NFL in rushing as well as run defense as compared to New England's 12th-ranked attack and 13th-ranked run D), the Patriots possess a healthy and unseasonably fresh Fred Taylor who is chomping at the bit to be unleashed in a playoff atmosphere.
In addition, New England will also have their full complement of defensive linemen for tomorrow's game, healthy and ready to unleash their collective fury upon Baltimore's offensive line. With only Dan Connolly questionable for the playoffs, a healthy Patriots squad is certainly looking to improve upon their first meeting with Baltimore this season, in which the leading passer (Joe Flacco, 264), rusher (Ray Rice, 103) and receiver (Derrick Mason, 88) all wore Ravens purple.
Tomorrow's match-up should be anything but boring, with two high-powered offenses trying to shoot it out. However, the combination of late-season momentum and home field advantage should give the Patriots the edge in this game. Be sure to watch for a return to 2004-form from Tom Brady (try to read that sentence out loud, I dare you), hitting 7-8 different receivers multiple times without his favorite go-to guy.
While the Ravens have a more well-rounded team than they've had in a very long time, unfortunately they've drawn a Patriots team looking more and more like the talented, angry team of 2004, and the Ravens will advance, nevermore...