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Protecting perfection

How Welker and an Eagles mistake secured a Pats win

Posted: Monday November 26, 2007 3:31AM; Updated: Monday November 26, 2007 10:53AM
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Wes Welker caught 13 passes for 149 yards in the Patriots' 31-28 win over the Eagles on Sunday night.
Wes Welker caught 13 passes for 149 yards in the Patriots' 31-28 win over the Eagles on Sunday night.
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NEW YORK -- So many thoughts after the Patriots beat the Eagles 31-28. It's good for the NFL, first of all. A week ago, after a 46-point win on the road against a team with a winning record, all hope for a suspenseful January was lost. The Patriots were untouchable. Now they're not.

And it was one heck of a football game, a terrific example of what sports is capable of when it's done right. Bill Belichick couldn't have read his team the riot act after the game -- at least I hope he didn't. The Patriots did not play poorly. The Eagles played a tremendous football game, with a bad decision at the end leading to their demise. New England didn't turn the ball over once, gained 410 total yards, and turned the tide of the game with three interceptions by a beat-up secondary.

Re: the bad decision: You can't kill A.J. Feeley for one terrible throw, because in the midst of a 60-minute ball game against the Team of the Decade, on the road and in your first start in 35 months, bad things will happen. They're bound to. But there were still so many things wrong with the interception that sealed the deal for New England with four minutes left. The Eagles, trailing 31-28, moved 63 yards in seven plays to the New England 29, where Philadelphia had a second-and-4 and one timeout left. The Patriots had three timeouts left. The goal for Philly here should have been to milk as much of the clock as possible, because if the Eagles scored either a field goal or touchdown quickly, New England would have four stoppages of the clock and three-plus minutes to tie or win the game. Tom Brady could bake four loaves of bread in that time.

I watched these tense last few minutes in the green room outside the Football Night in America studios at NBC. Cris Collinsworth sat to my right. As the time ticked down, Collinsworth, maybe 15 seconds before the ball was snapped, said, "I don't know why, but I just have a Jason Campbell feeling about this one.'' Campbell, the Washington quarterback, threw three bad interceptions in the previous two fourth quarters, at Dallas and Tampa Bay. Now Feeley faded back, felt some pressure, and threw down the right side, deep into the end zone for Kevin Curtis -- and the ball was picked off by Asante Samuel, his second interception of the day. True story about Collinsworth, and he didn't even gloat. The Eagles could probably have run the next three plays (assuming one of the first two resulted in a first down) and gotten the clock down close to the two-minute warning.

Impatience was mistake number one. Two: Why on God's green earth was Feeley throwing at Samuel, who got ahead of Curtis and outran him to the end-zone pick? In the game, at the time, because of injuries to other Pats' defensive backs was Eddie Jackson, a special-teams maven. Why not go after Jackson if you're determined to throw the ball? Two very big mistakes.

That's football. In my view, New England survived because of Wes Welker. When the Patriots traded second- and seventh-round picks (60th and 238th overall) in the draft last April for Welker, it was clear they were buying Tom Brady a security blanket for five years. A quick receiver who runs route precisely and gets open in space near the middle of the field consistently is what Brady needed at the end of last year.

The fact Brady also got Randy Moss was an unexpected bonus when the Raiders and Green Bay Packers couldn't reach agreement on a deal on the first day of the draft, and Al Davis was forced to send Moss to New England. Moss has been spectacular. Welker has been steady and hugely valuable, often times acting as a kind of extended handoff for Brady, increasing Brady's completion percentage with the running game stopping and starting as it has all season.

In the fourth quarter Sunday, with the Patriots' unbeaten season on the line, Brady threw 16 passes. The breakdown of where they went and how successful each was:

• Welker was thrown seven balls and caught five, for 54 yards.

• Tight end Ben Watson caught two of the three balls thrown his way, for 12 yards.

Donte' Stallworth caught both balls thrown to him, for 15 yards.

• Randy Moss caught neither of the two passes thrown his way.

Kevin Faulk and Jabar Gaffney each caught the only pass thrown to him -- Faulk for 12 yards, Gaffney for 16.

On the drive New England took the lead for good, it looked like Brady targeted Welker on five of his eight throws. They connected on three passes, all for first downs.

Welker has 81 catches, second to T.J. Houshmandzadeh's 83 after 12 weeks. Welker's on pace for a 118-reception season. He's the guy who moves the chains; 59 percent of his catches have produced first downs. More and more I'm amazed at how underrated he was entering this offseason, and I think it says something about the value of scouting. Good scouts don't form an opinion about a player and let that opinion be stagnant over time. Good scouts are open to changing their minds about someone if he plays consistently well. Welker, too small to be a classic possession receiver at 5-foot-9 and not straight-ahead fast enough to be a burner, wasn't drafted out of Texas Tech in 2004 and went to San Diego, then Miami, as a special-teamer and spare receiver. He emerged as a receiving and return threat last year in Miami, leading the Dolphins with 67 catches and in kick- and punt-return average. During the season, coaches and respected opponents praised Welker to the hilt. Several Patriots said he was the only player in the AFC East they had to consistently double-cover.

Yet Miami refused to offer him a market long-term contract, and in the midst of a coaching change, decided to dangle him on the market. The Dolphins made him a restricted free-agent and contract-tendered him at a second-round level -- $1.35 million -- which meant any team could give him an offer sheet and if Miami did not match, the Dolphins would get that team's second-round pick in return.

Early in free-agency, New England and Minnesota became interested in Welker, and the Patriots, deciding not to wait to see if Miami would match an offer if they made one, offered the Dolphins their second- and seventh-round picks in a deal for Welker. Miami, surprised at the interest a player it thought little of, took the deal, accepting the 60th and 238th picks in the draft for the receiver. My feeling is if Welker was tendered at the first-round level, New England might well have bit and made him an offer, which Miami would not have matched. That's how much New England loved Welker.

And that love hasn't waned. This morning, above all other reasons, Welker is the biggest factor in the Patriots being 11-0 instead of 10-1.

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