This is not about Tom Brady. Nor is it about Wes Welker. Rather, it is about a quarterback and wide receiver tandem currently turning the entire NFL on its ear as the Patriots approach yet another showdown with an unbeaten team.
As the Patriots prepare for next week’s meeting with the New Orleans Saints, the highest-scoring team in the NFL this year, one of the biggest questions for their opposition concerns the defensive game plan for corralling a passing attack that seems utterly indefensible: What, exactly, are the Saints going to do to stop Brady and Welker, the surgical twosome currently slicing the league to bits?
In the last five games, Brady has thrown 59 passes intended for Welker. He has completed 53. One of those misses came on third and 2 last week at Indianapolis, but the general point remains unchanged.
In a league where the average team connects on about 60 percent of its passes, Brady and Welker are in a stretch where they are hitting an astonishing 89.8 percent of the time.
"I don’t know how many balls he caught - it was a ton … 15 … and probably 200 yards or something,’’ Jets coach Rex Ryan told reporters following the Patriots’ 31-14 victory yesterday at Gillette Stadium in which Welker caught 15 passes for 192 yards. "To his credit, it wasn’t like he was just blowing [poor] coverages. You know, if [the Jets] played zone, he found a spot in the zone. We had one busted coverage for a long one, but other than that, this guy was doing a great job. Sometimes we had two guys on him and Brady had such confidence in him that he was still feeding him the football.’’
And Welker was catching it, without fail, proving without a doubt his absence was the single greatest blow against New England when the Pats lost a 16-9 decision at New York in Week 2.
This week, things fell far more neatly into place, and not solely on the turf yesterday in Foxborough. One week after a devastating loss to the Colts, to some degree the Patriots softened the impact of that defeat in more ways than one. First, the Patriots ripped apart the Jets on both sides of the ball. Second, the Pats simultaneously saw Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Denver tumble to defeat, leaving New England in good position to secure both home field advantage and, perhaps, a first-round bye in the playoffs.
There are still six games to go, of course. But if the Pats generally can take care of business from here on out, they could enter the postseason needing to play just one road game -- at Indianapolis -- for the right to go to their fifth Super Bowl of this decade.
Think they’d like a rematch?
In the interim, the Pats first have to engage the Saints in a game that could end up looking like jai alai. New Orleans has averaged a league-leading 8.6 yards per pass play this season, quarterback Drew Brees spreading the ball out among a cast of receivers the way Brady did early in his career. The one thing that Brees may not possess is a absolute, lock-stock-and-barrel go-to guy, which is precisely what Welker has become for Brady.
Think of it: as quick as Welker is, as good as his hands are, the single greatest skill he and Brady possess is a capacity to see plays the same way, every single time.
"Well, when you line up in the slot, you have the whole field to work. You can go short inside, short outside, long outside, long inside -- you can stop at any point and you’re typically on the third [defensive back] that comes on the field,’’ Brady explained. ``You’re a part of all the combinations with the running backs and the tight ends. It’s tough to do. You’ve got to see things very quickly. Wes is able to use his quickness to get open over the middle, in the flat, down the field.
"When you’re an outside guy, you’re usually against the better players and you have a really limited amount of field to work. So if they decide to really cover you, which [Kerry] Rhodes was typically over the top of Randy [Moss] and then [Darrelle] Revis was on him -- their two best players -- then you’ve got to find other guys to work, and Wes really took advantage of it.’’
Indeed, for all that Brady has accomplished during his career, he has never had a connection like the one he is currently enjoying with Welker. Not really. Brady had Deion Branch for a time, but Branch had problems staying on the field. Troy Brown was on the downside just as Brady was peaking. Moss has been easily the most explosive threat of Brady’s career, but there may be no receiver in whom Brady has had more confidence than the little man wearing No. 83.
Slightly more than two years ago, when Welker first joined the Pats, Brady playfully described Welker as being like a "puppy’’ during training camp, Welker returning the huddle each time as if playing a game of fetch. The playful jabs have since come as regularly as the 12-yard receptions. Yesterday, Brady took note of Welker gesturing for the quarterback’s attention on what was a 43-yard pass play - ``He mailboxed his hand,’’ said the quarterback -- and didn’t miss the opportunity to deliver the ball to the Jets’ 3-yard line, setting up a touchdown that gave the Pats a 21-0 edge.
"It’s hard to see because he’s about 5-foot-7,’’ Brady cracked.
Such is the game between the quarterback of the Pats and his most trusted receiver entering what is once again the biggest game of the year.
Hard to see sometimes, but an absolute joy to watch.
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