Ten years into his career, it's clear that Tom Brady has a singularly unique relationship with Wes Welker.
No receiver -- not Troy Brown, not Randy Moss, not Deion Branch – has ever displayed a better level of football with the Patriots quarterback than Welker. And while we are all aware of Brady's exploits over the first quarter of the season -- the quarterback is on pace to break the single-season yardage record -- Welker is not only the most important part of the New England offense, but possibly the league MVP through four games.
Welker’s statistical dominance at the receiver spot is every bit as overwhelming as what Brady is doing at quarterback. He entered Sunday's game the league leader in targets, receptions, receiving yards and receiving yards per game. Every time the Patriots have needed a key reception this season, he has delivered. He’s beaten zone and man coverage on a consistent basis, and shamed some very good defensive backs over the course of the first four weeks.
And while we won’t know the final results until the week of games is concluded on Monday, he likely added to his lead in all four categories this weekend after another sick performance, this time against the Raiders. Welker had nine catches for 158 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots stirring 31-19 win Sunday in Oakland (click here for the complete recap).
The last two weeks, he’s had 25 receptions. In that same span, the rest of New England receivers have combined for 21.
“He’s a hell of a player,” sighed teammate Vince Wilfork after the game. “I’m glad he’s on our side, I’ll tell you that.”
It’s one thing to have great numbers. It’s another thing for almost all of the receptions in a game to truly something -- six of his nine catches Sunday went for either a first down or a touchdown. He averaged 17.6 yards per catch. And five of his receptions were among New England’s 10 longest plays from scrimmage.
“They’re a big man team, so I knew that we had to come to play and make sure that we beat man coverage and get open, and make some plays in the passing game. They’re so good inside that it’s key that we make some of these plays,” Welker said.
“But across the board, it was whoever’s getting open,” he added when asked about the total team effort in the passing game. “The coverage kind of dictates where we’re going with the ball so there wasn’t one guy that we just tried to go after every single time or anything like that, we just -- across the board -- everybody tried to get open and make plays.”
He was at his best on New England’s drive that extended from the end of the third quarter to the start of the fourth quarter. On that eight-play, 80-yard sequence that consumed 4:43 and took New England from a 24-13 edge to a 31-13 lead, Welker accounted for 62 yards on the series, with pickups of 19 and 28 yards.
“Nothing surprises me with Wes -- he’s the heart and soul of this team,” Brady said of Welker. “He’s been that way since the day he got here. He works his tail off, and he’s a great player, a great teammate. He’s become a real dynamic player over the years. He’s made some huge plays for us. He’s clutch -- tough, mentally tough, physically tough.
“I mean, it’s great and everything,” Welker replied, “but I think we have a lot of guys that bring a lot of heart and a lot of soul to this team on a daily basis, and that’s what it’s about. And the more guys we get on that wagon, the better off we’re going to be.”
After four games, Welker is on pace to have one of the greatest seasons by a receiver in the history of the NFL. Through one-quarter of the 2011 season, Welker now has 40 catches for 616 receiving yards and five touchdowns -- according to Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com, Welker is off to the best four-game start in NFL history, yardage-wise. (The previous record-holder was Terry Glenn, with 544 in 1999).
That would put the receiver on pace for an absolutely ridiculous season of 160 catches, 2,464 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. The NFL record for catches in a season is 143, set by former Indianapolis wide receiver Marvin Harrison in 2002. The record for receiving yards in a season is 1,848, set by Jerry Rice in 1995. While you have to figure that sometime or another Welker will be slowed, there's the very real likelihood that he still has an excellent shot at one or both of the records.
"This is the best I've ever felt,” Welker told reporters after the game. “This is the best I've ever played in my career. I think just my attitude toward the game and the work I put into it on a daily basis and understand that this is my job ... just taking it very seriously and training and everything that I've been able to do has helped out this year."
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday:
TOM BRADY STAYED PRETTY MUCH TRUE TO FORM
Last week, Brady threw four picks in a loss to the Bills. Over the course of his career, the Patriots quarterback has had five games where he threw four interceptions, and in those outings immediately afterward, he ended up averaging 25-for-36 with two touchdowns and no interceptions while posting a 4-1 record over the course of those five games. On Sunday, the quarterback came as close as he has been all season to hitting those numbers, ending up 16-for-30 for 226 yards and two touchdowns. (New England did not turn the ball over all afternoon.)
Brady likely had his finest sequence on New England’s first drive of the second half. Looking to blunt a surge in momentum from the Raiders and add to a 17-10 lead, Brady took the Patriots on a seven-play, 81-yard drive that took 3:53. It wasn't the prettiest and most efficient drive of the season -- New England had two plays where it didn't get a yard and a third play where it picked up five yards on a defensive offsides -- but it worked.
On that series, Stevan Ridley had 36 yards from scrimmage, including a 33-yard run around right end for his first professional touchdown, while Welker also had 36 yards, 32 of which came on a pass deep down the right sideline that got the Patriots into Oakland territory for the first time the entire half. The touchdown gave the momentum back to New England, as the Raiders wouldn't get within nine the rest of the afternoon.
As for Brady, last week’s performance was clearly in the rearview mirror when he set foot on the Oakland turf. The quarterback approached this one with a simple mantra: Just play your game.
“If you’re going to throw passes, you’re going to throw interceptions -- that’s just part of playing quarterback,” he said. “You try to make good reads, try to make good accurate throws (with) good fundamentals (and) good technique, and all week in practice you work on those things of being balanced and accurate and playing smart and playing fast. If it happens, it happens. You’ve got to bounce back from them, that game, the following week. Its just part of the game.”
Brady’s two touchdown passes allowed him to move past Joe Montana (273) and tie Vinny Testaverde (275) for eighth place on the NFL’s All-Time list. He almost sounded embarrassed when he was asked about passing Montana.
“I'll never be in Joe's category,” said Brady, “We throw the ball a lot more than they threw it back then. It's much more of a passing league now than it's ever been.”
IT WASN'T JUST BRADY WHO BOUNCED BACK ON SUNDAY
Last Sunday was an ugly defeat for the Patriots, one that had a lot of similarities to last season’s brutal loss to the Browns. After the Cleveland loss, the Patriots responded with a good week of practice. That was followed by agut-check road win over the Steelers the following week where the didn’t turn the ball over and had some key takeaways. This year was remarkably similar – ugly loss to the Bills followed up with a good week of practice, which led to a satisfying road win that featured zero turnovers and a couple of key takeaways.
“I think it was a good team win,” Wilfork said. “I think this whole week we challenged each other. I think Bill challenged us, and we challenged each other. I mean, we were very competitive in practice. This was like one of the best weeks of practice that we had (and there were) not a lot of mental errors in practice. So we had a good week of preparation, and it showed. We went out and played ball.”
"It's always big to bounce back," said Welker. "We had the letdown last week and we got a bounce-back from that and coming on the road into a hostile environment, it's a big win for us. It was good to see."
THE PATRIOTS PASS RUSH STILL ISN’T WHERE IT NEEDS TO BE
New England was unable to generate any sort of consistent pressure on Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell all afternoon. The Patriots hit Campbell three times on 39 dropbacks, no better than what they did last week against Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, when they got two hits on 40 dropbacks. (For the season, the Patriots have just 19 quarterbacks hits on 168 dropbacks, a rate of just 11 percent.)
To be fair, Campbell is one of the more difficult quarterbacks to bring down -- he was only sacked twice through the first three games, one of the best rates in the league. And the Oakland offensive line appeared to be guilty of a few holds, especially when it came to keeping Patriots’ defensive end Andre Carter out of the backfield.
But at the same time, New England has now gone eight consecutive quarters without a sack (a total of 121:09 of game action). The last time a Patriots’ pass rusher registered a sack, it came in the waning moments of the Week Two win over San Diego when Mark Anderson got to Philip Rivers. New England also yielded 504 total yards and the Raiders were 8-for-13 on third down.
However, the Patriots were able to force key turnovers while holding superback Darren McFadden to 75 rushing yards. In addition, they kept Oakland at 13 points until a garbage-time drive (not unlike what happened at the end of the Miami game) allowed the Raiders to tack on a relatively meaningless 99 yards and another six points with a couple of minutes left.
Not bad playing a team in their house that put up 34 points the week before.
“The plays we did give up, we just [had] miscommunications, missed tackles, missed assignments,” Wilfork said. “We gave up two running plays and I think that was about 60 or 70 yards of their running game. But other than that, I think we handled the run game. I think a lot of people challenged us and basically said we couldn’t stop their running game and all that. Well, two plays, you take those two plays away, I think we handled them pretty good.”
Asked about giving up 500 yards again and if he felt better about the effort in the second half (New England yielded just one scoring drive in the fourth quarter) as opposed to the first, Belichick shrugged.
“I feel good that we won. That’s it,” he responded. “We didn’t win last week, I didn’t feel good. We won this week, I feel better. We won the first two weeks, I felt better those two weeks too. That’s what we come here for is to win games. [We'll] try to win another one.”
THE PATRIOTS MUST LEARN HOW TO PLAY WITHOUT JEROD MAYO
That struggle to improve on the defensive side of the ball will be an even greater challenge this week, as initial reports out of Oakland say that the Patriots sturdy middle linebacker -- and “our top defender,” in the words of Vince Wilfork -- will be lost for roughly a month after suffering a left knee injury in the first half of Sunday's win over the Raiders.
“He’s a top defender in this league,” Wilfork said of Mayo, who entered the game boasting a team-high 25 tackles through the first three games. “Anytime you have a top defender on the field, it always betters your chances to win. But you know what? We’re going to have to keep rolling. We will keep rolling. The ball won’t stop, I think when the opportunities for different guys [come] to step up, they have to step up. That’s what’s going to have to happen now.”
In Mayo's place against Oakland, the Patriots used a heavy rotation at the spot, going with Gary Guyton, Dane Fletcher and Tracy White, but they all struggled at times against the Oakland offense. Look for them to get more time this week against the Jets.
NO ONE THROWS ON WILFORK ISLAND ... AGAIN
So four weeks into the season, Vince Wilfork has more interceptions than Leigh Bodden and Devin McCourty combined. Sure, that makes sense.
With just over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Raiders, the Patriots were holding a 31-13 edge and looking to shut the door on a pesky Oakland team that had still managed to hang around for three-plus quarters. With the Raiders in a first and 10 at the New England 30, Campbell dropped back and looked for McFadden out of the backfield.
However, Wilfork appeared to deke Campbell, lunging forward at the snap before taking a few steps backward into the passing lane, clogging up McFadden’s route over the middle. He simply stepping into the passing land and picked off Campbell, rumbling with the ball all the way down to the New England 49. While the Patriots were unable to turn the interception into points, it effectively ended the game for the Raiders.
It marked the second interception of the season for Wilfork, who also picked off a ball in the Week Two win over the Chargers.
“Vince has got great hands,” Belichick said. “People don’t realize that because he’s not a skill player, but he can catch the ball … punts and everything else. So when he gets his hands on it he’s a vacuum cleaner -- he sucks it right in there. But that was a big play for us and great awareness on Vince’s part.”
“I don’t know what I did,” Wilfork said when he was asked about the coverage. “I have to go back and watch the play. One thing with a lot of quarterbacks is, when it comes to passing it, they want to go deep then come back to their security, that’s their checkdowns or cross or whatever it may be. I was just happy to be in the right place at the right time.”
AT THE QUARTER TURN, NATE SOLDER AND STEVAN RIDLEY ARE 1-2 WHEN IT COMES TO ROOKIE OF THE YEAR HONORS IN NEW ENGLAND
The rookie right tackle out of Colorado stepped in again for Sebastian Vollmer and again had a positive outing -- while Brady was hit four times on the day, he was only sacked once. (As a group, the New England offensive line has now allowed just one sack over the last two games.) However, Stevan Ridley saw his first serious time of the season against the Raiders, and finished with an impressive 10 carries for 97 yards and his first touchdown as a professional.
While the 33-yard touchdown run one was one of the most important plays of the game, our favorite came midway through the first quarter on the Patriots’ first scoring drive of the afternoon when he was the recipient of a direct snap, a play where he managed to take off for a solid 15-yard pickup. It was a play we have seen several times over the years from veteran Kevin Faulk, who utilized it to great effect in some key postseason games, including a key sequence in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Ridley was part of a running back by committee -- the Patriots also got 16 carries for 75 yards and a touchdown from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran with authority and purpose for the first time in two weeks. (There was also two carries for 13 yards from Danny Woodhead, who appeared to be shaken up in limited action.) For the first time this year, the Patriots ran the ball as much as than they threw it, with 30 pass attempts and 30 carries. In all, the Patriots carried the ball for 13 times and 180 yards, an impressive average of 6.1 yards per carry.
“We had a good day running the ball, so that always helps balance things up,” Belichick said. “We always want to have balance, and we were able to have it today. We blocked well (and) we ran well.”
A LITTLE PAT CHUNG GOES A LONG WAY
The return of the best safety of the post-Rodney Harrison Era in New England provided a steady and stabilizing influence on a Patriots secondary that struggled at times against Campbell and the Oakland passing game. Wearing a protective cast over high right thumb, Chung finished with four tackles and an interception on the afternoon, with his pick the unquestioned highlight for the secondary.
With just over two minutes left in the first half, the Raiders were trailing 14-10, but had a second-and-goal at the New England six-yard line. Campbell flashed a play-action fake to running back Michael Bush and lobbed a floater toward the end zone directly at Chung, who won’t make an easier catch in his life. (No Oakland receiver was within 10 yards of Chung on the play.) The safety decided to stick in the end zone after the pick, and suddenly, the Patriots had regained momentum.
"It cost us. It cost our team,” Campbell said. "It's something I don't usually do. Unfortunately, it happened. And from that point on, it kind of stirred the momentum. We just pretty much were going tit for tat at that point. You're going against a team like New England, an offensive juggernaut, you can't have mistakes like that.
“It looked like they were trying to run a play action pass down on the goal line, and try to get the defense to bite up on the run and then hit something in behind him -- and then it was kind of a busted play,” Belichick said. “I don’t know exactly what happened out there. Obviously, Campbell must have figured somebody was coming in behind him. I don’t know.”
Among the defensive backs, there was some good -- Chung's red-zone pick in the first half was one of the key moments of the game for the Patriots, who were able to turn the interception into three points, pushing from a 14-10 to a 17-10 lead just before halftime. And at first glance, it certainly appeared that Devin McCourty had his best game of the season, looking solid against the run and finishing with a team high eight tackles, including one for a loss.
However, there were still plenty of errors, with perhaps the most egregious coming in the first half when Sergio Brown took an awful route to a ball that led to a sizable gain for the Raiders, a play that reminded more than a few people of Brandon Meriweather (and not just because Brown was wearing the same No. 31).
RICHARD SEYMOUR WAS FIRED UP TO FACE HIS OLD TEAM
The former Patriots defensive lineman was clearly cranked up to play this one against his old mates, and he started on an excellent note. With the Oakland fans rocking on New England’s first play from scrimmage, he came roaring up the gut against center Dan Connolly, who had no choice but to hold him, lest he make roadkill out of Tom Brady.
But it all went south from there. Seymour was flagged for two really bad penalties in the first quarter, getting called for unnecessary roughness when he tossed Brady to the ground after a play had already been whistled dead (a 15-yarder that allowed the Patriots to convert a third-down opportunity on their opening drive) and adding a facemask on BenJarvus Green-Ellis later in the same drive that allowed New England to get the ball to the Oakland 32. (Three plays after the facemask penalty, the Patriots scored their first touchdown of the day.)
“They said they blew the whistle,” Seymour said when asked about the first penalty. "But it was so loud I never heard the whistle. That's still no excuses. We have to play better. We just couldn't get off the field on third down.”
“He put me down kind of gently, like he said he would,” Brady said with a smile. “I don't think it should have been a foul, but I'm glad we got the call.”
He didn’t pick up any more penalties on the day (the Raiders, the most-penalized team in the league entering the game, finished with an astonishing seven penalties in the first half and nine for the afternoon), but he ended up with three tackles on the day in the loss. It was a bittersweet afternoon for many of Seymour’s old mates,
“I hate seeing (Seymour) over there,” Brady said. “He's an awesome player. I was thinking about him all week and what his ability is to be able to disrupt the passing game and the run game. He's physical, and a great leader for them.”
“I haven’t gotten the chance to see him, but we remain friends,” Wilfork said. “That’s one thing, we do remain friends. He’s a competitor, I’m a competitor, I want to win, and he wanted to win. So I’m sure he’s kind of pissed off. But you know what? That would never affect our friendship. I wish him the best of luck with his career, and he’ll do the same with me.”
AFTER FOUR GAMES, THE PATRIOTS HAVE A LITTLE BETTER IDEA OF WHAT SORT OF TEAM THEY HAVE THAN WHEN THEY STARTED THE YEAR
So at the quarter-pole, the 2011 Patriots are sitting at 3-1. Defensively, they must improve in many areas between now and the new year if they are to be considered a truly elite team. That includes more assistance from the marquee names like Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis who were brought in here over the offseason but have made a negligible impact through four games. But the offense, and Brady and Welker in particular, continues to operate at a furious pace (even without much assistance from Chad Ochocinco.)
Regardless, the second quarter of the season should certainly be entertaining -- it kicks off with Jets week (as my buddy Nick Underhill said, expect to see lots of this over the next few days), and includes games against the Cowboys, Steelers and Giants.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Belichick said. “[It's] a very competitive division. We’ve played two of the teams in our division, got another one coming up this week. They all look pretty good, and there’s a lot of other good teams in the AFC. ... We’ve got a long way to go, [and] hopefully we can improve.”
There’s still a long way to go, but at least one veteran likes the direction this team is headed.
“They’re tough. This is a tough, tough, tough bunch,” Wilfork said. “They take coaching well, they take criticism well, and they’re hard workers. Anything Bill puts on our plate, they try their best to do it. I mean they work so hard, and you can’t ask for anything better than that. No complaining, people just come to work, put their hard hats on, whatever it may be that day.
“These guys are going to keep continuing to get better, and that’s what we’re going to need. Like I said, we’re far from where we need to be, but if we keep moving and striving forward, I think we’ll be OK.”