|Patriot Wes Welker tied a Super Bowl record with 11 catches, but it was of little consequence to the disappointed receiver. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)|
GLENDALE, Ariz. - There was a red welt on his forehead and knuckles on his left hand were bleeding. But for the real pain, you had to peer deep inside Wes Welker, and last night, in the heartbreaking moments following Super Bowl XLII, that was an impossible task.
"I don't know if it's set in yet," said the Patriots wide receiver, a blank stare on his face in the aftermath of New York's stunning 17-14 win. He paused, searched for words, but could only produce something his coach would have said.
"It is what it is. There's nothing you can do."
For 18 games, the Patriots had been able to do plenty, their vaunted offensive explosiveness at the heart of what was expected to be the most historic season in NFL history. But inside the dome in the desert, the Patriots could do very little on offense and Welker was asked why.
"You have to give it up to New York," he said. "They out-executed us."
No one had out-caught Welker. That was one of the few bright spots in a dismal night for New England, because Welker's 11 catches tied him with Dan Ross, Jerry Rice, and former Patriot Deion Branch for the most in a Super Bowl. But the mere mention of that record-tying effort was of little solace to the fourth-year player.
"No, I didn't," is all Welker said when asked if knew he had seized a piece of a Super Bowl record. He didn't care. He wasn't in the mood to search for answers, either.
"We should have moved the ball a lot more effectively than we did. We didn't do that all game and we should have."
On a night when quarterback Tom Brady was under siege, he needed to throw a security blanket over his team, and in Welker he found an outlet. Having been held to just two catches in the first half, Welker came alive in the second half and Brady was happy to go to him time and time again.
Welker had a 15-yard reception on the first play of the second half, snared a 7-yarder minutes later, and while that drive stalled, it seemingly established that he was - as he has been all season - the go-to guy for Brady. By now, it was apparent that New England wasn't going to be able to slow the Giants' pass rush, which meant a heralded aspect of the team's offense was gone.
"They've got some good pass rushers, some guys that break on the ball well, and they do some good things out there," said Welker. "It makes it tough to get those throws downfield. They did a great job with their pass rush."
Brady noticed, which is why he turned to Welker on the team's second drive of the second half for two more completions, then again late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. Welker had had a 13-reception game earlier in the season, and twice he had snared 11, including the regular-season finale at the Meadowlands - a 38-35 win over the Giants. So hardly was it a surprise that with 7:54 left and the Patriots trailing, 10-7, Brady took his team to the line of scrimmage and called Welker's number for 5 yards. Three plays later, he found Welker again, then after a completion to Kevin Faulk, Brady zoomed in for Welker for 10 yards to get the ball to the Giants' 29.
It was vintage crunch time and Welker was thrilled to be part of it, especially with the man in control.
"Tom is the best in the game," said Welker. "He's everything you want in a quarterback. There's no quarterback I'd rather play with. He showed great poise on that drive."
It went for 12 plays over 80 yards, took 5:12, and ended with Brady's touchdown pass to Randy Moss for a 14-10 lead. Welker and his mates on offense moved to the sidelines with just 2:39 to play and while they were thrilled to be back on top, it was also a time for a sense of helplessness. The Giants started to move the ball and there was nothing Welker and teammates could do. Nothing was as shocking as the third-and-5 completion off a wild scramble that Eli Manning made to David Tyree, a near-miraculous grab that covered 32 yards and pushed the Giants to the Patriots' 24.
"It was tough [to watch]," said Welker. "Sometimes the ball bounces your way. That's what happened to the Giants tonight."
Four plays later, it was even tougher to watch, for Manning's lob into the left corner of the end zone nestled into Plaxico Burress's hands to put the Giants back in front, 17-14.
There were 35 seconds left to possibly record the first 19-0 season in NFL history, but there would be no miracle finish for Brady, Welker, and the Patriots. The unthinkable had happened. The improbable had taken place. But the pain had not yet sunk in.
"We knew there was an opportunity there," said Welker of the final, desperation drive that ended with three incompletions and a sack, "and it's the Super Bowl. We weren't just going to give it away."
No, they weren't.
But the Giants were more than willing to take it away.
Jim McCabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.