AFC Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium
Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
New England's season first turned on a play when wide receiver Wes Welker was hit hard. Now it has turned again, during a play on which he was barely touched.
The first came on Dec. 13 in Foxborough. The Patriots had lost three of four and, at 7--5, looked to be in danger of missing the postseason. They were tied at seven with the Panthers in the third quarter of a game that would be remembered for Randy Moss's desultory effort. And for this: On second-and-eight from the Pats' six-yard line, Tom Brady read a nickel blitz and threw quickly to Welker breaking upfield from the left slot. He made the six-yard catch and was flattened by safety Charles Godfrey.
Welker then gathered himself on all fours, stood and shot both arms into the air, imploring the Gillette Stadium crowd to make more noise. The Patriots went on to a 20--10 victory and won their next two games to wrap up the AFC East. "It's a mystery how you get hot," said veteran running back Kevin Faulk last week. "Nobody can figure it out, and if you can, you're a genius. But we're hoping [we are] right now." Opponents were duly forewarned: Heading into Sunday's regular-season finale at Houston, the Patriots appeared to be the team nobody in the AFC wanted to play.
On Sunday, with just under 10 minutes left in the first quarter, Brady connected with Welker on an option route in the short left flat. Welker planted to juke Texans safety Bernard Pollard, and his left leg collapsed underneath him with what appeared to be a serious injury. As of Monday he was expected to undergo reconstructive surgery and miss the postseason. No team in the playoffs could have suffered a bigger nonquarterback loss. "You're heartbroken for Wes," veteran New England cornerback Shawn Springs told reporters after the game. "He's probably the heart and soul of our team."
Welker is even more than that. Despite missing two full games he had 123 receptions for 1,348 yards, accounting for 33.3% of the Patriots' passing offense. Opponents often assigned him two defenders and left just one on Moss; under almost any circumstances Welker was quickly and reliably available to Brady against blitzes. Welker and the Steelers' Hines Ward are on the short list of best slot receivers in history. He will be replaced by Julian Edelman, a promising rookie seventh-round draft choice from Kent State, who emulates Welker (and even resembles him), but who has 405 fewer catches.
Yet if the Patriots are vulnerable without Welker, it is no certainty that the Ravens are the team to take advantage. They made the playoffs with a 21--13 victory in Oakland on Sunday, an uninspiring win achieved mostly on the shoulders of veteran Willis McGahee. Beaten out for the starting job by rising second-year back Ray Rice, McGahee rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns with Rice getting reduced duty.
The Ravens, who had looked dominant while starting 3--0, won just six of their last 13 games. They had a 1--6 record against playoff teams, and that victory was 3½ months ago against the then struggling Chargers. Baltimore's only two-game winning streak after its hot start was against the Lions and the Bears in December.
No matter, said linebacker Ray Lewis after Sunday's survival win: "We need to forget about last year [when the Ravens won two road playoff games before falling to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game] and forget about everything we've already been through this year. I mean we have had so many ups and downs. That's the message I was trying to get through before the game—just get in and let everything else take care of itself."
If Welker's absence and some seasonably nasty New England weather dictate a grind-it-out game, the Ravens can win by feeding the Patriots heaping helpings of Rice. He rushed for 1,339 yards and caught 78 passes from fellow sophomore Joe Flacco for another 702, giving Rice an average of 127.6 yards from scrimmage, second in the NFL. The Ravens, however, have struggled against top quarterbacks all year and lost starting corners Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington with late-season ACL injuries. All-Pro safety Ed Reed returned against the Raiders after missing a month with a groin tear. "I felt rusty," said Reed. "All I did was knock off the rust. I've still got pain."
The Patriots steadily improved on defense down the stretch, holding the Panthers, Bills and Jaguars to an average of 273.7 yards after giving up nearly 900 total to the Saints (who were at their hottest) and the Dolphins. "People started paying attention to technique and assignments," said defensive tackle Jarvis Green. "Everybody started playing as a unit. It's basic, but you've got to do it." Yet central to that work was a gimmick defense that can include as many as five linebackers and six defensive backs. It's effective against the pass but vulnerable to the run.
On Sunday during their 34--27 loss in Houston, New England yielded 439 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns. It was a step backward for a team that, minus Welker, has little room for error.
THE PICK: Patriots 21, Ravens 20
The Ravens have struggled against top QBs and are without both starting cornerbacks.
An NFL scout identifies the key to each team's Super Bowl prospects
"I love what they've done the last couple of weeks in the running game, establishing Sammy Morris and getting Fred Taylor back healthy. The Patriots have to use the clock and keep their defense off the field. They just don't pressure the quarterback well enough to put the game on the defense's shoulders."
"They're a front-running team. All year they've been awful coming from behind, so you can't trust Joe Flacco to do it now. When the Ravens get up early, their defense plays fast. That's their best chance—get up and let the defense fly around and try to force mistakes."
BOB LEVEY/GETTY IMAGES (EDELMAN)
PAT ANSWER A former quarterback at Kent State, the rookie Edelman will have to fill a crucial spot in the slot.