The regular season is over and the first playoff opponent of 2009 is set in stone, yet all the talk this week will likely revolve around the strange -- and somewhat depressing -- turn of events in the Patriots' 34-27 loss to the Texans.
Forget for a second the fact New England coughed up a 27-13 lead by allowing 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter (albeit with most of their starters out of the game at that point). The biggest news is the loss of wide receiver Wes Welker, who tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the first quarter and is done for the postseason -- and quite possibly next season, too.
Anyone who watched the Patriots this season knows Welker is arguably the most indispensable player on the team aside from quarterback Tom Brady. Despite missing two games -- and most of Sunday's game as well -- Welker finished with 123 catches, shattering the team record of 112 he set in 2007. The diminutive wideout's presence draws defenders away from Randy Moss, allowing the big-play threat to get open down the field.
Basically, it all hinges on Welker, and now the Patriots need to find a way to get past the Ravens in this weekend's wild-card game and perhaps win two more road playoff games to get back to the Super Bowl without their most consistent receiver.
The weight will fall on the shoulders of rookie Julian Edelman, who made a positive impression Sunday with 10 catches for 103 yards.
"Julian's made a lot of progress from where he's started from the beginning of the year back in the spring after we drafted him," coach Bill Belichick said. "A year ago at this time, he'd never played receiver.
"He was a college quarterback, and he's come in and made a good adjustment at that position. He's worked hard at the return game, and he's really picked up a lot offensively at the receiver position, considering where he started from."
He'll need to learn even faster this week because the Patriots are counting on him to provide the same trickery and deception Welker threw at opposing defenders throughout the course of the regular season.
Edelman's job is to make defenders respect him enough to leave Moss in one-on-one coverage with an opposing cornerback, thus creating the matchup Brady desires. Anything less than that could make Sunday a long afternoon for New England's offense.
"We want to do the best we can in every phase of the game -- offense, defense, special teams, kicking the ball, covering them, returning them, running the ball, stopping the run, playing both sides of the passing game and all that," Belichick said.
"We want to try to do as good a job as we can in everything, and this week the matchup against Baltimore will be a challenge on every front on that. We're going to have to work hard. We know it's a big challenge, and we'll do the best we can to meet it this week."
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