INDIANAPOLIS -- Late Sunday night, deep in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, Wes Welker stared straight ahead, glassy-eyed and quiet.
Above him, a television monitor had shots of happy Giants, laughing and dancing amid a confetti-saturation celebration. On the other side of the massive interview room, you could hear laughing and happiness and celebrating from players in white uniforms being led in and out of the interview area. Meanwhile, the wide receiver, who had been such an utterly reliable presence for the Patriots’ passing game over the last five years, remained silent.
Less than an hour before, he had dropped a pass -- frankly, it remains debatable if it was a drop or a poorly thrown ball by quarterback Tom Brady -- during a key stretch of Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants. If he had caught the ball, there was the very real likelihood that the Patriots would have picked up the first down and been able to run out the season on New York.
The Patriots were holding on to a 17-15 lead and had just passed over into New York territory with just over four minutes left in regulation. New England was facing a second-and-11 when quarterback Tom Brady dropped back. On the play, Welker had been able to split two New York defensive backs, who were in a Cover 2. Brady saw that Welker found some daylight, and the quarterback lofted the ball in his direction.
But the ball was delivered at an awkward angle, and Welker appeared to get twisted around. It bounced off his hands and fell incomplete, and the Giants would take advantage, scoring the game-winning touchdown with a minute to go.
After the game, regardless of who was at fault, there was no doubt who was taking blame for what happened.
“It’s one of those plays I’ve made a thousand times,” Welker said. “Just didn’t make it.”
“The ball is right there. I’ve just got to make the play. It’s a play I’ve made a thousand times in practice and everything else. It comes to the biggest moment of my life and don’t come up with it. It’s discouraging,” he said. “It hit me right in the hands. I mean, it’s a play I never drop. I always make. The most critical situation, and I let the team down.”
Said Brady: “Wes was running down the field and it looked like they messed the coverage up a little bit and I threw it to him. He went up to try and make it, as he always does, and we just couldn’t connect. He’s a hell of a player. I’ll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. He’s a phenomenal player and teammate, and I love that guy.”
While Welker will beat himself up over the missed connection, in truth, the incomplete pass was only a small part of the offensive inefficiency for the Patriots in the second half. There were several bad drops by wide receivers (including Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch) and an inability to run the ball consistently down the stretch. In the end, it led to an astounding 26 minutes of scoreless football at the worst possible time, and a 21-17 loss for the Patriots to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI (click here for the complete recap).
“That one play wasn’t the end of the game,” Branch said of Welker’s drop. “There was so much stuff that went down throughout the third and fourth quarters. All of the plays were big, every play is very important. Had I made the catch that was behind me, that could have been a key third down, but we didn’t connect on it.”
“We know it’s never one person’s fault. This is the ultimate team game,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins. “I know I could have made blocks better. A few plays, other guys could have made better blocks. Other guys could have made better tackles.
“We know it’s not Wes’ fault or anyone that says it’s their fault. We know it’s not. It’s too bad that he feels that way right now, but I’m sure that he’ll realize it’s not.”
The usually sure-handed slot receiver, who was targeted eight times and caught seven passes for 60 yards, will be a free agent this offseason. (It’s worth mentioning here that the last player who found himself in a similar circumstance was Asante Samuel, who never played another game for New England after missing an interception late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII.)
If Sunday marked Welker’s last night in a New England uniform, it will be a sad and sorrowful conclusion to his time with the Patriots. The best slot receiver in the history of the franchise has built up immeasurable currency with New England fans because of a five-year string of dominant performances, only to possibly see it all come crashing down because of one missed connection on the big stage.
“It’s one I’ll have to live with,” he said sadly.
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday night in Indianapolis.
THE PATRIOTS DID NOT USE ONE OF THEIR BEST OFFENSIVE OPTIONS
Prior to Sunday’s game, New England had used the no-huddle to great effect over the course of the season, running it roughly 25 percent of the time. In their two postseason wins, the Patriots went no-huddle almost 50 percent of the time in victories over the Broncos and Ravens. That, combined with the fact that the Giants struggled mightily in their limited experience trying to defend the no-huddle, at least appeared to make this the sort of game in which New England might have some chances with the no-huddle. But New England ran 62 plays from scrimmage and just nine of them were in the no-huddle. There are several questions about this game, but one of them has to be why the Patriots went away from one of their most effective offensive options.
By the numbers: In all, including the two postseason wins, 308 of New England’s 1,214 plays from scrimmage (25 percent) have come in the no-huddle. On Sunday against the Giants, the Patriots ran nine no-huddle plays on 62 offensive snaps, a total of 15 percent.
Money quote: “They made a couple of plays, we knew that was going to happen. For us, it was all about maintaining our poise and just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We didn’t do anything differently. We talked about getting planned, made sure we had everybody on the right page, and kept it up, and we were able to turn things around.” -- Giants linebacker Michael Boley on slowing down the New England offense
THIS ONE ISN’T ON THE DEFENSE
It wasn’t a perfect performance -- New England couldn’t get off the field in the early going, and there was plenty of defensive confusion out of the gate -- but the Patriots defense certainly did more than enough for a win on Sunday. New England held one of the better offenses in the league to 13 points for the first 59 minutes. Other than a late touchdown from Ahmad Bradshaw (New England allowed the New York running back to score on purpose -- more on that later), the Patriots defense did not allow a second-half touchdown. There were several stellar individual performances: defensive end Mark Anderson had a 1.5 sacks and was an active presence all night, Kyle Arrington effectively shut down Victor Cruz (four catches for 25 yards), and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes had 11 tackles each and were key cogs in the defense. There were defensive lapses: Cornerback Antuwan Molden had a rough night (he was responsible for a 12 men on the field penalty and was beaten several times in coverage), and despite providing a boost for the pass rush, Rob Ninkovich was flagged for an ill-timed offsides that negated a big third-down tackle. But overall, the New England defense played well enough to win the game against a superior offense. Bottom line? When you have an offense that’s been able to put up world-class numbers over the course of the season, if you hold an opponent to 21 points, you have to like your chances.
By the numbers: The Giants’ 21 points were the second fewest they scored in a game in the last six contests.
Money quote: “We just didn’t make enough plays, I think. But guys gave their all-out effort and we just came up on the short end of the stick this time around. It was a heck of a ride to get here. It just didn’t end the way we wanted it to end.” -- Veteran defensive lineman Gerard Warren on the performance of the defense
SOMETIMES, LETTING SOMEONE SCORE IS A GOOD THING
In one of the most surreal images you will ever see on a football field, the Patriots stood aside and let New York running back Ahmad Bradshaw score what would turn out to be the game-winning touchdown on a 6-yard run with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter so that they could get the ball back. It wasn’t the first time New England had pulled that off -- heck, it wasn’t even the first time the Patriots had done it in Indianapolis (in the 2006 AFC championship game, they let Joseph Addai waltz into the end zone in the fourth quarter in a similar situation), but the sight of the defense parting and then Bradshaw stopping on the goal line and toppling over into the end zone was an odd sight. After the game, Bill Belichick and several players confirmed the fact that they allowed Bradshaw to score -- instead of allowing time to tick down and the Giants to try a game-winning field goal with less than five seconds remaining.
By the numbers: Bradshaw’s touchdown was just the second rushing touchdown allowed by the New England defense in the postseason. (Baltimore’s Willis McGahee had the other one in the AFC championship game.)
Money quote: “It killed me. When the call came in to let them score I kind of was like, ‘What?’ I’m here to do a job and it’s my job to play the defense and let them score. It was tough, though. It definitely was tough.” -- Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes on if it was hard to let the Giants score
ELI MANNING WAS THE BEST QUARTERBACK THE PATRIOTS FACED ALL SEASON
The Giants quarterback made all the throws at all the important times. He started the game 9-for-9 and was able to connect with receivers in the tightest of windows. Under his guidance, the New York offense didn’t turn the ball over all night and was 5-for-11 on third downs. His longest connection of the evening was the masterfully thrown 38-yarder with just under four minutes remaining down the left sideline to Mario Manningham that was a completely undefendable ball. And while the game-winning touchdown was a gimme, it came at the end of a nine-play, 88-yard drive that was just as impressive as anything Brady has put together in the postseason. In the end, Manning was named the game’s MVP for the second time in his career after completing 30-of-40 passes for 296 yards and a touchdown.
By the numbers: In two games against the Patriots this year, Manning was a combined 50-for-79 for 546 yards and three touchdowns with one interception and two fourth-quarter comeback victories.
Money quote: “He made a great play on the sideline. The coverage was tight, but it was a good throw and a good catch. Still wasn’t much space there, but the ball was in there and he made a great catch. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes you play good defense and they make a great throw and a great catch.” -- Belichick on Manning’s fourth-quarter pass to Manningham
DANNY WOODHEAD WAS VERY NEARLY A HERO
Given the situation, the diminutive running back had the best game of his career Sunday against the Giants. In his first career Super Bowl, he had 60 yards from scrimmage -- he was able to pick up 18 yards on the ground (on seven carries) as well register four catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. He was at his waterbug best on a second-quarter series when he personally accounted for 33 of the 96 yards on a New England scoring drive, a sequence that ended with a 4-yard scoring strike from Brady to Woodhead when the quarterback fit the ball through the narrowest of windows for the Patriots’ first touchdown of the night. With Kevin Faulk likely having played his last game with the Patriots, the full-time role of third-down/changeup back will fall to Woodhead, who showed a glimpse of what’s to come with an impressive performance on the big stage.
By the numbers: Woodhead’s 60 yards from scrimmage were third most among the Patriots’ skill position players, trailing only Wes Welker’s 81 (60 receiving, 21 rushing) and Aaron Hernandez’ 67 (all receiving).
Money quote: “It’s as tough of a loss as I think I’ve ever had. You get so close, and it doesn’t end up the way you like it. It’s a tough pill to swallow. ... It’s tough. We were close to being world champions and it didn’t happen. It’s a tough situation, but you’ve got to wake up tomorrow. The sun is going to shine.” -- Woodhead at the end of the game
ROB GRONKOWSKI WAS NOT AT 100 PERCENT
He made a game show of it and certainly looked active when he was out there. But it was clear that Gronkowski was not at his best Sunday against the Giants. The big tight end, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the AFC championship game against the Ravens, was targeted three times and came away with two catches for 26 yards. It was his second-worst output of the season (he had one catch for 15 yards in an October win over the Raiders in Oakland), and while he insisted that the ankle was 100 percent, it clearly hindered him throughout the evening. He had just one catch on New England’s final drive of the first half, a 20-yard reception down the seam that looked like vintage Gronk (that turned out to be the Patriots’ second-longest play from scrimmage on the night). In addition, he had a 6-yard reception midway through the fourth quarter that came on the same series that included Welker’s game-changing drop. He will likely continue his ascent into the upper reaches of the NFL stratosphere. But for now, even after making it to a Super Bowl in his second season, he knows his year ended on a sour note.
By the numbers: Sunday marked just the second time this season Gronkowski had two or fewer catches. (As a rookie, Gronkowski had eight games when he had just one catch.)
Money quote: “I was good. I was 100 percent out there, doing everything they asked me to do. ... They’ve got a good defense. They played well, and Tom [Brady] hits open men, and unfortunately, he was just hitting the guys who were open, and that’s just how it goes.” -- Gronkowski on his evening
AARON HERNANDEZ WAS
So many times over the course of the season when Gronkowski was at less than his best, his fellow tight end was able to step in and pick up the slack, and Hernandez did it again on Sunday. With Gronkowski struggling with a high ankle sprain, Hernandez emerged as the primary target in the New England passing game -- he was targeted a game-high 14 times and came away with a team-high eight catches, with the highlight coming on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Brady that gave the Patriots a 17-9 lead with 11:20 left in the third quarter. However, Hernandez had a bad drop in the fourth quarter and was one of a couple of receivers (along with Gronkowski, who looked like he had the best shot at it among the New England pass catchers who were down there ) who were unable to come up with the Hail Mary at the end of the game.
By the numbers: Hernandez’s eight catches for 67 yards represents a career-best postseason performance for the tight end, who also had a touchdown for good measure.
Money quote: “We just didn’t make enough plays. They made more plays than us.” -- Hernandez on the offensive performance against the Giants
TOM BRADY INHABITED BOTH ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM SUNDAY NIGHT
It was a weird night for the New England quarterback. There were times where he was fantastic, carving up the New York defense with pinpoint accuracy. He broke a Super Bowl record set by his idol Joe Montana with 16 straight completions, including a 10-for-10 stretch on the final drive of the first half where he went through a sequence that was as good as any he had produced all season, hitting Hernandez, Woodhead and Welker on a series of impressive pass plays. (At the half, Brady was 15-for-18, with one incompletion coming on an intentional grounding and the two other passes batted down.) But he was also at the controls of an offense that faltered badly down the stretch -- the Patriots did not score a single point over the last 26:20, with drives ending with two punts, an interception and the end of the game. He was responsible for the first-quarter safety when he was flagged for an intentional grounding call. And while the drops down the stretch absolutely killed the New England passing game, there were times where he appeared to be rattled by the “phantom pressure” Jason Pierre-Paul referred to in the days leading up to the game. He finished 27-for-41 for 276 yards and two touchdowns with one interception and two sacks.
By the numbers: According to ESPN, Brady was 0-for-5 when throwing the ball at least 20 yards in the air downfield, including both the intentional grounding that gave the Giants a safety and the game’s first score, and the incomplete Hail Mary attempt into the end zone on the game’s final play.
Money quote: “ I hope we do get back here again. I’ve been lucky enough to play in this game five times in 10 years. I’d love to keep coming back to this game and taking a shot. It’s better than sitting home and not playing in this game, so I hope another opportunity comes.” -- Brady on his future
IT WILL BE AN OFFSEASON FULL OF QUESTIONS FOR THE OFFENSIVE LINE
While the final images weren’t as damning as they were four years ago at Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots offensive line will have to answer for what appears to be another subpar effort on the big stage Sunday night. The Giants were able to get good pressure on Brady for a large chunk of the evening, flushing him from the pocket on occasion and clearly making him uncomfortable. The offensive line was able to give Brady large chunks of time to throw the ball at the end of the first half and start of the second (New England had scoring drives of 14 and eight plays at the end of the second quarter and start of the third) but faltered at some key moments. Going forward, don’t expect wholesale changes (all the starters are likely to return in 2012), but this one will be tough to shake for the Patriots.
By the numbers: Brady was hit eight times by the Giants on Sunday night and sacked twice, including one late in the game by Justin Tuck. He was hit nine times and sacked five times by the Giants four years prior in Super Bowl XLII.
Money quote: “I thought they played well. They competed well, and I thought they did a good job. Everything we did could have been a little bit better, but it was very competitive. We just came up a little bit short tonight. That’s about all there is to say.” -- Belichick on the play of the offensive line