A week ago, I envisioned the Patriots riding into the post-season on a four-game winning streak. They were supposed to have followed up their shellacking of Jacksonville with an impressive victory over the do-or-die Texans. They would have won their last two games on the road. They would finally be firing the kill-shot when their opponent was wounded. They would have a four-pronged ground game to compliment the Welker/Moss duo. Yes, the Patriots, a team that everyone counted out after their back-to-back defeats against the Saints and Dolphins, would be entering the post-season flying high and perhaps looking better than any other team in the twelve-franchise field.
As has been the case all season, things just didn't go according to plan. As New England approaches its Sunday afternoon match-up with Baltimore, there are far, far more questions surrounding this team than answers. How healthy is Tom Brady? Can the offense survive with a receiving corps of Randy Moss and... yeah, that's pretty much it? Is Laurence Maroney going to play again this season? Do we even want to risk having Laurence Maroney playing again this season? Will Bill Belichick remain as cavalier with his play calling now that each game could mean elimination? Is this team capable of stopping a quarterback on the road who's not named Trent Edwards? How large of a fourth quarter lead would this team have to have for me to feel comfortable about the outcome? 22 points? 23 points?
Honestly, there's a part of me that just wants it to end. This season has been beyond maddening. As the playoffs progress and the stakes heighten, it's only going to be more painful when the mistakes that have plagued this team all season finally do them in. If the Patriots lose to Baltimore, it's quick and relatively painless. The team is clearly rebuilding. They lost their MVP in Week 17. End of story. See you in September.
Then, there's the part of me that realizes just how special it is to have a team in the post-season. I remember my outrage last season when the 11-5 Patriots were left out in the cold and the 8-8 Chargers were treated to a home playoff game. I think about my Minnesota Timberwolves who haven't played a meaningful game since 2004. I look back at flawed teams like the 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants who managed to overcome the odds and claim the Lombardi. I think about the players like Tom Brady and Wes Welker who have truly given their all to bring their team to this point. When all those things come to light, suddenly the past 17 torturous weeks seem very, very worth it.
Still, anyone who thinks that the Patriots have a good shot at winning it all, has to be out of their mind, right? After all, Wes Welker was the most pivotal point in New England's offense. The team has struggled to score points in big games all season, so losing the NFL's top receiver has to be a game-ender, doesn't it?
Maybe. Things could very well spiral out of control for the Patriots on Sunday afternoon. It wouldn't be overly surprising to find this team in a deep hole in the middle of the 3rd quarter with no way to climb out. However, there's a part of me that can't help but wonder if losing Wes Welker was the best thing that could have happened to New England. Don't get me wrong, Welker was, without question, the most-valuable contributor on the Patriots' roster. In the game against Carolina, he single-handedly brought his teammates and the crowd back into what had been a lifeless contest. He fought for more yards and churned out more first downs than anyone. It's not even close. Yet despite Wes Welker's career performance this year, there's a part of me that wonders if he was almost "too" good. Is it possible that Welker was so reliable that Tom Brady relied on him too much? Would Brady have been better chucking deep to Moss more often instead of safely hitting Welker for a 5 yard gain? Did guys like Sam Aiken, Benjamin Watson, and Chris Baker lose a little bit of their edge, knowing that on any given play, there was about a 5% chance the ball was heading their way? Are there times (the play immediately preceding 4th and 2 comes to mind) where Belichick would've been better to dial up a run vs. a quick out to Wes?
Maybe Welker made the game too easy for everyone else. When he was on a roll, everyone could step back and watch him do his thing. When their backs were against the wall, everyone was depending on Wes to come up with the big play, vs. creating one of their own. He was their crutch. Need a first down? Go to Welker. Need to make a comeback? Go to Welker. Need somebody to create a spark? Go to Welker. Perhaps the biggest complaint that Patriot fans have had all season is that this team lacks the versaility that had become New England's trademark. The Patriots had become one-dimensional. The perplexing package that Bill Belichick would vary week to week became so predictable that even the most casual football fans could predict what was about to happen.
With Welker gone, all of that will change. It will have to, or the Patriots will find themselves eliminated in the Wild Card round for the first time in Belichick's tenure. When the Patriots need a couple of yards to keep a drive alive, it's going to be up to Kevin Faulk, or Laurence Maroney, or Fred Taylor, or Sammy Morris, or Ben Watson, or Chris Baker, or Sam Aiken, or Julian Edelman to step up and make that play. You know what? As a defense, I would have to think that accounting for the laundry list of players that I just rattled off would be a whole lot tougher than focusing on Wes Welker. As improbable as it may sounds, losing Wes may very well end up being a case of addition by subtraction.
Had Welker not gone down, Sunday's game would have undoubtedly been one where New England was heavily favored. By the same token, the Patriots would also have been ripe for an upset and another one of their storied fourth quarter meltdowns. Now, the temptation to be complacent is completely gone. Every single player knows that they only way this team survives another week is if everyone gives their all. They can't afford to get far behind. They don't have the luxury of letting up if they get a lead. For the first time since 2007, there's no longer an aura of greatness surrounding the Patriots. If this team is to go anywhere this post-season, it will take a whole lot more than being a bunch of co-stars in the Wes Welker Show. It's going to take a committed group of underdogs playing the right way and griding it out for the full 60 minutes. It's going to take New England Patriots football, at least the kind of Patriots footall that this franchise used to play.
This team clearly lost its identity last Sunday. That's a scary thing to realize on the eve of the playoffs. Nobody knows what to expect from the Patriots against Baltimore, perhaps not even themselves. What I do know is this: as important a role as Wes Welker played in establishing this team's identity, it was an identity that wasn't going to win a Super Bowl. The Patriots now have a chance to re-invent themselves for better or for worse. Maybe they'll struggle to find themselves and this season will sputter to a hapless end. But maybe, just maybe this team uncovers something special in the wake of losing Welker, the same way they found redemption in the aftermath of Drew Bledsoe's injury. We'll find out the answer to those questions on Sunday, when the Patriots unveil the new face to the world.
Each season I try to achieve the elusive goal of correctly selecting the twelve playoff teams prior to Week 1. In the, now, eight years that I've been attempting this, the best I've ever done is get eight correct. Most years, the results are laughable. This season I managed to break even and get 6 out of 12.
My correct picks included the Colts, Chargers, Patriots, Ravens, Cowboys, and Packers
My incorrect picks included the Steelers, Titans, Panthers, Bears, Seahawks, and Giants
The teams I missed were the Bengals, Jets, Saints, Vikings, Cardinals, and Eagles
Now that I've firmly established that I'm mediocre at best with predicting NFL games, here are my picks for the 2009 playoffs:
Wild Card Round:
Bengals over Jets
Cowboys over Eagles
Patriots over Ravens
Packers over Cardinals
Colts over Bengals
Cowboys over Vikings
Chargers over Patriots
Saints over Packers
Conference Championship Round:
Chargers over Colts
Cowboys over Saints
Super Bowl XLIV:
Chargers over Cowboys