Welker leads Patriots past Panthers
New England maintains lead in AFC East
FOXBOROUGH -- Wes Welker lay on his back deep in the Patriots end of the field, looking up into the December gloom and still clutching the ball under his arm. He had just been blasted by Carolina Panthers defensive back Charles Godfrey, the kind of hit that makes a stadium hush. Would he stay in? Would he get up? Welker stood, stumbled, and adjusted his face mask. Then, on third and 2, he walked back into the huddle.
What Welker did next defined the Patriots' season-preserving, 20-10 victory over the Panthers today at Gillette Stadium. Lifeless for most of the afternoon with their playoff hopes in the balance, Welker grabbed the game by throat and loaded his team on his back. Welker gained the first down on the very next play, and he would catch three more balls on the drive as the Patriots marched 96 yards for the tie-breaking touchdown that salvaged an ugly afternoon.
In the standings tomorrow, the victory will show the Patriots righted their season and maintained a one-game lead in the AFC East over the Miami
Dolphins and New York Jets, both winners today. New England snapped a two-game losing streak and extended their perfect record at home to 7-0, thanks in large part to a defense that allowed the Panthers barely 100 yards in the second half.
Some remnants of their recent struggles remained as the Patriots eked past a 5-7 team playing with Matt Moore, its second-string quarterback. Randy Moss fumbled the only pass he caught, and Tom Brady, clearly affected by a triumvirate of injuries, struggled through the first half. One new problem emerged -- defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left the game in the third quarter with a foot injury and did not return.
But the Patriots kept control of the division because, when they needed it most, Welker delivered. The Patriots had produced little offense for the
first half and the first drive of the second half. Almost every every time they mounted a threat, it dissolved. Three times, they turned the ball over in Carolina territory, scoring only on a Kevin Faulk draw at the end of the first half.
When Godfrey blasted Welker, the Patriots were tied at 7 and 92 yards from the other end zone. Welker ran a drag pattern from right to left, and Brady held the ball until he came. Brady drilled a pass into his stomach, and Welker gained 13 yards.
Welker hopped up and thrust his arms in the air, injected life into a moribund crowd -- and his team. The Patriots kept driving behind Welker, screaming across the middle of the field and charging ahead. He caught five passes on the drive for 64 yards, the last of which went for 23 yards and gave the Patriots first and goal at the 8.
On third down, Brady found tight end Benjamin Watson streaking in front of Panthers linebacker Jon Beason a yard deep in the end zone. Brady zipped a pass to Watson, who held on after Captain Munnerlyn drilled him.
Watson flipped the ball in the air. As it rolled around, Brady chased down the ball and scooped it up. Brady spiked the ball so hard it bounced 15 feet in the air.
Perhaps he needed to expel his frustrations. Hampered by the injuries to his ribs, right finger, and right finger, Brady played the first half as if an impostor were wearing No. 12. He completed 8 of 15 passes for 59 yards, throwing one interception. Only one of his passes gained more than 10 yards, and Moss promptly fumbled it in Carolina territory.
For the entire game, Moss played one his worst games in a Patriots uniform. Brady threw four passes in his direction. Moss dropped two, fumbled one, and watched another turn into a interception. In the fourth quarter, Moss drew an offside penalty. Late in the game, Moss sat by himself on the bench, his helmet on, and Brady walked over to yell in his face.
The Panthers devoted a safety to Moss all game, which helped spring Welker. For the game, Welker caught 10 passes for 105 yards, right on his season average. Welker leads the NFL in both receptions and yards per game. He has made 105 catches this year, few of them more important than the five he made Sunday on the defining drive.
Once Welker scored, the Patriots defense, as it could not for the past month, responded. The Panthers gained 123 yards and six first downs in the second half, and for the game they converted 3 of 13 third downs.
By game's end, the Patriots could kneel on the ball, close to the spot where Welker had lay hours earlier. He got up, and the Patriots followed.