DENVER — A day later, some clarity.
We know for sure now that Bill Belichick hates Wes Welker with the power of 1,000 suns. Belichick blames Welker for dropping a pass that cost him a Super Bowl ring two years ago. He didn’t like Welker's foot jokes about Rex Ryan and he didn’t like Welker saying, “It’s always nice to stick it in Bill’s face.’’
He didn’t push to keep Welker here after last season. He and his bosses set a “value” for Welker's position, let him walk, rejoiced when their market evaluation proved correct, then charged the Kraft family’s sizable media cartel with the task of selling the decision as a sound “football” move. They gave Welker's money to Danny Amendola and effectively gave Welker's job to Julian Edelman.
It was all working out pretty well when Welker messed up a punt play that enabled the Patriots to complete their amazing 34-31 comeback victory at Gillette Stadium in November.
But Sunday at Mile High was a disaster for the Patriot plan. The myth of the Patriots’ brilliance and greatness had fooled a lot of folks into believing that a depleted, quite ordinary team was going back to the Super Bowl.
But then the game started, and it was obvious. Tom Brady had no one to throw the ball to. Amendola, the man who replaced Welker, was targeted only once and dropped the throw, a no-show performance that would put the Celtics’ Jeff Green to shame. Meanwhile, Welker — Peyton Manning’s fourth option in the Broncos’ pinball offense — caught four passes for 38 yards.
Welker also took Aqib Talib out of the game with a pick-play block.
And now Belichick hates him more than ever.
After Sunday’s demolition, Belichick said Welker's play was “a key play in the game.’’
Monday morning in Foxborough, Belichick downgraded his assessment to this: “One of the worst plays I’ve seen.’’ Hoodie termed Welker's hit “a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib . . . no attempt to get open. I’ll let the league handle the discipline.’’
There may not be any discipline from the NFL. Some would argue that the Patriots make this kind of play routinely (there’s video of Edelman making a similar hit Sunday), and that it’s impossible to assign intent, but that doesn’t matter anymore in Foxborough. It doesn’t sound as though Belichick will be in any mood to hear Bob Kraft lobbying for Welker to have a spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Losing Talib was the key moment of last year’s AFC Championship loss at Gillette against Baltimore, and it was the same deal Sunday in Denver. The Patriots’ plan was to have Talib mugging Denver receivers at the line of scrimmage, but that plan was taken away by Welker. The Patriots simply didn’t have enough talent on the field to stay with Denver. The Patriots had nothing on this day and were lucky they weren’t beaten, 35-7.
“I wish we could have done a little better job today, especially me,’’ said the coach.
He sounded deflated Monday. And this is deflating. The Patriots are sliding backward. Losing back-to-back AFC Championships is not a demonstration of a team on the rise. The 1974-76 Raiders are the last team to get to a Super Bowl after losing back-to-back conference championship games.
Brady is getting older and the Patriots are vulnerable.
The Patriots have become the 1990s Atlanta Braves. They play in an easy division, take care of business during the regular season, then get punched in the mouth and go home in the playoffs.
A long time ago, in the days before the Super Bowl, the NFL played a consolation game featuring the two second-place teams. It was sort of a junior varsity championship game. Close your eyes and try to imagine what would happen if these Patriots had to play the San Francisco 49ers next weekend.
New England was by far the fourth of the final four teams in the tournament. There’s no disgrace in getting to the final four, but the notion that the Patriots had a chance with their ordinary people after everything that had happened to this team was preposterous.
Belichick has been unusually contrite these last couple of days. Sunday he talked of “mistakes, especially by me,’’ and Monday he said, “Nobody makes more mistakes around here than I do.’’
Everyone forgives you, Bill. You took this team much further than it deserved to go. But some of the mistakes were made last spring and summer. And letting Welker go was one of those mistakes.
He’s going to the Super Bowl. And the Patriots are picking up pieces of their broken luck. Again.