Through the years in Boston sports, there have been a few select relationships that could be classified as special, in which one brings out the best in the other(s), lifting all parties to the next level: Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Dan Shaughnessy and Curt Schilling.
But Randy Moss and Wes Welker are perhaps the ultimate symbiotic combination of talent in Boston sports in recent memory. Since Moss and Welker first joined the Patriots before the 2007 season, few teammates have managed to help each other quite like them. Both are colossal talents, who, when singularly admired, remain special. When they operate in concert, they are almost unfair.
Welker’s presence underneath and fearlessness when it comes to going across the middle — few receivers take a pounding like the Texas Tech product — consistently make him a focus for opposing defenses. The slot receiver position is a hard and unforgiving spot, not for the weak of heart, but Welker makes his money going over the middle, and he’s got Moss’ respect because of it.
Similarly, Welker’s presence frees things up for Moss as a deep threat. Welker couldn’t enjoy the success he’s had in the New England offense without the benefit of Moss. Regardless of his physical status, No. 81 still demands attention every time he steps on the football field. As a result, Welker could not have led the league with 123 catches this season (despite missing two games with a knee injury) if Moss wasn’t there.
Moss and Welker played their 49th game as teammates on Sunday in Houston against the Texans (for the full game recap, click here) in the regular-season finale for both clubs. The final result (a 34-27 Patriots loss) wasn’t all that important — what was important, however, was the toll that the game extracted on the New England passing game.
Welker reportedly tore both the MCL and ACL in his left knee, suffering the injury in the first quarter when the receiver’s knee buckled without contact after he turned up the field after making a catch. As a result, for the first time in his New England career, Moss is expected to operate without Welker in a meaningful game when the Patriots take the field on Sunday in their playoff opener against Baltimore.
After the game, the Patriots approached Welker's injury with their usual code: next man up.
“It’s football — guys go down all the time. It happens on our team and other teams and it sucks. But it’s part of the game,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “When you are on a team, when a guy goes down, then another one has to step up and fill in the trenches.”
Moss has missed Welker before — Welker was sidelined with a knee injury for a couple of games earlier this season, and Moss was silenced by Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis in one of them. This time, without Welker and with considerably more on the line, more will be expected of Moss, because for the first time since 2007, he won’t have his running mate out there with him in an important game. It will be a supreme test for Moss, who must rise to the challenge beginning Sunday at 1 p.m. against the Baltimore Ravens.
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday at Reliant Stadium:
SOME OF THE OPTIMISM THAT SURROUNDED THIS TEAM LAST WEEK IS NOW DAMPENED
Let’s start with this basic premise: the outcome of the game didn’t really mean much, at least for the Patriots. New England was headed for the playoffs, regardless of a win or a loss. So, Bill Belichick was free to experiment a little bit, which meant leaning on backups for long stretches of the second half on both sides of the football. That’s why it was Brian Hoyer leading the offense at the end of the game as opposed to Tom Brady.
But the way New England played for sizable stretches, especially on defense, hardly inspires confidence going into the postseason. The Patriots were in nickel for a good portion of the afternoon and didn’t have Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, but the run defense struggled, allowing 144 rushing yards on an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
Houston finished with 439 net yards, including 303 passing yards from Matt Schaub. And after New England took a 27-13 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, the Texans posted 21 fourth-quarter points for the come-from-behind win. Regardless of who was in there, it was not the sort of performance you want heading into the postseason.
JULIAN EDELMAN WILL GET HIS CHANCE
In the wake of Welker’s injury, the rookie wide receiver out of Kent State likely is the player who will be asked to contribute most. Edelman saw most of the reps at Welker’s position for the rest of Sunday’s game and was targeted 15 times by Patriots passers. He finished with a career-high 10 catches for 103 yards, including a classic Welkerian-style reception for 17 yards on which he snuck his way through the Houston secondary to pick up big yards after the catch.
“I think Julian stepped up and played well,” Hoyer said. “I think he did a great job.”
Edelman has surpassed many of the expectations that were placed on him at the start of the season. As a result of his performance on Sunday, the former college quarterback, taken in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, finished his first regular season as a professional with 37 catches for 359 yards and a touchdown.
“I don't know what happened to him,” Edelman told reporters after the game when asked about Welker. “I don't know what it is, but, yeah, I’m going to have to do a lot of studying and just prepare like I did all year. All I can do is work hard and taking the coaching that we’ve had and go with it.”
WITH WELKER MISSING, WE WILL SEE MORE TIGHT END — AND KEVIN FAULK — LOVE
While Edelman figures to get most of the reps at the slot receiver position with Welker out, there also will be some increased variety in the passing game. Utilized primarily as blockers through the majority of the regular season, the tight ends likely will see more opportunities. Watson and Baker were targeted a combined five times on Sunday, one-quarter of the pass attempts by the New England quarterbacks, and they caught three balls for a combined 34 yards.
In addition, the return of Kevin Faulk (the veteran was out of the lineup Sunday for the first time all season and the first time since the 2008 season-opener) should provide a boost. Over the course of his career, Faulk has proven himself to be one of the best backs in the AFC when it comes to receiving yards — he's tied for third (with Edelman) on the team in receptions with 37 and sixth on the team in receiving yards with 301, an average of 8.1 yards per catch.
IN ITS FIRST POSTSEASON, THE 2009 DRAFT CLASS WILL BE ASKED TO CONTRIBUTE
If the final month of the season is any indication, as a group, the Patriots rookies will have more responsibility on their shoulders in the 2009 postseason than any group of first-year players since 2003, when youngsters such as Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson and Ty Warren logged serious playoff minutes.
Second-rounders Pat Chung and Darius Butler should continue to see meaningful time on special teams, as well as in nickel coverage, while fellow second-rounder Sebastian Vollmer likely is a starter when the playoffs begin against the Ravens next Sunday. Jake Ingram has become a steady and consistent member of the special teams unit, handling every long snap flawlessly over the course of the season. And Edelman now figures to be an important part of the offense.
Regardless, tight end Chris Baker echoed a theme the Patriots have hit on over the years when talking about first-year players at the dawn of the postseason: After surviving a full regular-season, you’re not a rookie anymore.
“[Edelman] did a good job. He’s has been getting better each week — he’s not a rookie now,” Baker said. “He’s played enough games and he’s ready to go. He has played pretty good.”
THE PATRIOTS CONTINUE TO STRUGGLE IN THE SECOND HALF
It is a puzzling anomaly: Why can’t the Patriots offense score in the second half on the road? New England managed just one offensive touchdown in the second half of Sunday’s game. In fact, there really was just one offensive touchdown on one sustained drive, a nine-play, 71-yard sequence that took 3:53 and ended with an 11-yard scoring run from veteran running back Fred Taylor, his second of the afternoon. (The Pats did get another score on a 91-yard interception return for a TD by rookie cornerback Darius Butler.) New England did have some backups in the game in the second half, but the Patriots had three-and-out and a second-down interception from Brady to start the fourth quarter, and suddenly, the Texans were in control.
In their six regular-season road losses this season, the Patriots were outscored 104-38 in the second half.
If the offensive inconsistency that has plagued this team in the third and fourth quarters of road games continues into the playoffs, it will be a short postseason run for this team.
“We wanted to win the game. That was our goal,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “If we are going to play, we might as well win. So we are not happy with the loss today. It’s a new season now. The Texans played a great game and they played us very well. It’s time for us to move on.”
THE PATRIOTS MAY HAVE FOUND THEMSELVES A REAL VILLAIN IN BERNARD POLLARD
In the wake of what happened in September 2008, Pollard already had a spot between Bucky Dent and Andrew Toney in Boston’s Sports Villains Hall of Fame. His performance on Sunday only solidifies his position as a latter-day New England sports antihero. In addition to doing a good job causing general mayhem in the Texans secondary, Pollard came away with six tackles, a pass defensed and fumble recovery (which he jumped on in the end zone for a touchdown).
But his finest moment likely came in the fourth quarter. With the game tied at 27 and the Patriots at their own 19-yard line, Brady dropped back and flung the ball in the direction of wide receiver Sam Aiken. Pollard stepped in front of the pass, picking Brady and giving the ball back to Houston. Four plays later, the Texans scored the game-winning touchdown when Arian Foster went up the middle seven yards for the score.
“I just saw the ball and just dropped on it — that’s definitely a momentum-builder for our team,” Pollard said after the game. “Obviously, on the interception, you know you’ve just got to make a play. When a team comes out against you and wants to challenge you in the air, especially as a safety, you have to take pride in that. That was big for us. It really didn’t even hit me until I came down on the ground, and that’s just big for us. That’s what we want to play like. Our level of play has to be sky high.”
BRIAN HOYER DID SOME GOOD THINGS AND SOME BAD THINGS
The backup quarterback saw the first meaningful action of his NFL career on Sunday, getting the call off the bench with 4:45 left in the second quarter in relief of Brady. It was a bit of an ignominious start — his first play from scrimmage came in the shadow of his own goal posts, and ended when Fred Taylor fumbled the ball and Bernard Pollard jumped on it in the end zone, giving Houston a 13-10 lead.
But Hoyer did a good job settling down, finishing 8-for-12 for 71 yards, including a 17-yard connection with Edelman at the end of the first half that set up a 43-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
While Brady was back on the field at the start of the second half, Hoyer was given another shot late in the game. The undrafted rookie out of Michigan State took the reins of the Patriots offense with 1:47 left in regulation and New England trailing by seven, 34-27. He did a nice job engineering a drive down to the Texans’ 34-yard line, but the drive ended when a Hoyer pass for Edelman was off the mark on a fourth-and-3 attempt.
Hoyer also saw game action in the 59-0 blowout of the Titans on Oct. 18 and the 38-17 loss to the Saints in New Orleans on Nov. 30. Against Tennessee, he was 9-for-11 for 52 yards with a 1-yard touchdown run — arguably the finest of his three appearances in the gamebook this season — but this ranks as a solid 1A.
“It’s good anytime you get a chance to get in and play some real live action,” he told reporters after the game. “Obviously, whenever you go out there, you want to win. So I’m disappointed we didn’t get that last drive in the end zone. It’s just quality reps against a good team — a great team the Texans are. They’re fighting for their playoff lives and we just try to go out there and battle. No matter what situation you go in, you want to win. It’s a disappointing feeling right now.”
EVEN THOUGH IT ENDED ON SOMETHING OF A DOWNER, ONE OFFENSIVE POSITIONAL GROUP HAD A BETTER YEAR IN 2009 THAN IT DID IN 2007
The Patriots offensive line allowed 18 sacks in 2009, the fewest in New England history since the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978. (The previous best was 21 sacks in 2007.) On Sunday, the Texans got Hoyer once (a 10-yard sack with 1:56 left in the first half that was split between Conor Barwin and Brian Cushing) and Brady once (a 4-yard sack for Mario Williams with 8:16 left in the game). It broke an impressive streak of four-plus sack-free games for the New England offensive line, and marked the first time a Patriots quarterback was taken down since Nov. 30 against the Saints in New Orleans.
IT’LL BE BALTIMORE NEXT WEEK
Things were locked down for the Patriots late Sunday afternoon when the Ravens beat the Raiders in Oakland, setting up a New England-Baltimore contest at Gillette Stadium next weekend. It’ll be a rematch of sorts for the two teams, who met in a really well-played game in Foxboro on Oct. 4. (Need a refresher on that one? Click here.)
“Right now we put this game behind us, and on Tuesday we come in and get ready for whoever we play next,” Belichick said. “We worked all year to be in this position, to be in the playoffs, and we’re looking forward to getting started on Tuesday.”
“None of this really matters anymore — it’s done and it's over with. We’ve moved on already. That’s how simple that is,” linebacker Adalius Thomas said. “The record doesn’t mean anything anymore. We are going to the playoffs, and that’s all you can really ask for. The record is clean, 0-0. Win or go home.”