— J.J. Watt may have spit on the Patriots' midfield logo before this AFC divisional playoff game, but it is Wes Welker who continues, game after game, year after year, to spit in the face of football convention.
Running back Shane Vereen may have become the latest in a long line of 21st century Patriots to jump up — sometimes out of nowhere — and produce an eye-popping offensive playoff game. Yet it is the man at the front of that long line who shepherds them to where they must go. And that's why Sunday, after the 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans, Tom Brady was the winningest postseason quarterback in NFL history.
"I just hope I'm around for a few more years," Brady said after he threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns. "This was an important win for our team, and that's always the No. 1 goal for me."
Look, it makes for good drama to feign horror that an opponent such as Watt would have the temerity to expectorate on red, white and blue paint at the 50-yard line at Gillette Stadium and then rub the spit in with his foot. But it takes little courage and, really, what Watt reportedly did means nothing in the end.
It takes a lot more courage to do what Welker does. If a little guy goes over the middle enough times, the wisdom is one of those times he's not getting up. One of these times, a linebacker or a defensive back will rip off his head. One of these times, he'll get lit up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the circuits in his nervous system will blow and that will be the end.
Only Welker never seems to miss a game, and Sunday, in making eight more catches for 131 yards, he became the franchise's all-time leader in post-season receptions.
Rob Gronkowski can lift up the Prudential Center with one arm, but you can't play tight end in the NFL with one arm, and now he reportedly is lost for the rest of the playoffs. Gronkowski went up for a Brady pass in the first quarter, came down with it out-of-bounds, falling on the left arm he broke Nov. 18 blocking for an extra point. Gronk, clearly in pain, left for the locker room. Soon reports surfaced that X-rays showed he had re-broken the arm, needs surgery and is lost for the AFC title rematch against Baltimore and for a potential Super Bowl.
Coach Bill Belichick said he didn't know anything about it. Ditto Brady. Ditto Vince Wilfork. What they say, of course, and what is reality is are different matters. And it's amazing to consider that Aaron Hernandez, who had six catches for 85 yards in this one, missed seven games this season with a high ankle sprain. To consider that Deion Branch missed six games. To consider that Julian Edelman, who earlier in the season was the man some saw as replacing Welker, missed seven games, too.
It's amazing, because Welker, who weekly takes a pounding like no other, keeps on catching balls, getting whacked and getting back up and buzzing on. A total of 122 catches in 16 games last year, 118 more in 16 games this season and, in all, the first guy to catch more than 100 passes in five seasons. Yet still he needs to prove himself for the long-term deal he covets? He still had to endure the possibility of the Patriots using him for fewer snaps at the beginning of the season? We'll stop there. That's a tirade for another day.
What matters is he's there — always. The Patriots started the game as healthy as they had been all season and sure enough, down went Gronk. Danny Woodhead already was lost after his first carry with a thumb injury. Vereen is awfully fast out of the backfield. Along with the Patriots setting a high-tempo offense, he created some mismatch problems for Houston both running and receiving. The Patriots like to eschew substitutions, keep opposition defenses scrambling. Even after Gronk went out, they slid Michael Hoomanawanui into Gronkowski's role and kept their two-tight end offense rolling.
Yet it's Brady's ability to read what's given to him, to adjust his sights and exploit different matchups that is so breathtaking to watch and so perplexing to defend. He found Vereen — who had caught only eight passes all season — five times, including two for touchdowns. One was for 33 yards when he beat linebacker Barrett Ruud.
"I knew that matchup was in my favor," Vereen said. "Still, I have to do a great job to get open.
"I didn't come into the game knowing how much anyone was going to play. I just come in ready to play."
By the time Vereen had finished, he had tied the Patriots' postseason record with three touchdowns in a game and become only the third player in NFL postseason history to have two touchdown catches and one rushing score in a game. Roger Craig and Ricky Watters of the 49ers were the others. Vereen had 400 total yards [251 on the ground] all season. Sunday alone, he accounted for 124 yards.
"A huge growing-up moment for Shane," Brady said. "It was very special. He had a great game."
Said Welker, "It's unfortunate [to lose Gronkowski], but we've shown guys can step up and play a role. Everybody upped their game."
"Shane stepped in and made a lot of big plays for us," Belichick said. "These kind of games, you never really know when the dial spins who it's going to end up on."
The truth is, the dial spins and it always seems to end up on Brady and Welker. Fans love to savor the flavor of the day or the flavor of the month, but always it comes back to the tried-and-true flavors of Brady and Welker. Brady's 17th playoff victory pushed him past his childhood hero, Joe Montana. Now he has more than all of them, more than Terry Bradshaw and John Elway and Brett Favre.
"I grew up a 49ers fan," Brady said. "Joe Montana, Steve Young, those guys are in another class. I love competing. I've been fortunate to play on great teams over the years. I never take it for granted."
And there's no one he loves to compete with more than Welker, who broke Troy Brown's team record of 58 postseason catches. He would set a postseason career high with his 131 yards, including a terrific play to gain separation down the left sideline for 47 yards.
"When you think of dependability, you think of Wes," Brady told the Boston Globe the other day. "Not only him being out there, but him running the right route, reading the right coverage, breaking at the right time, making a catch, making the defender miss, getting the first down, knowing the situation. That's what separates him as a player — his ability to process all these different things. Wes commits himself every day to being out on the field, but not only the game field but the practice field. All of Wes's decisions in his life are based around being out playing."
And all of Brady's decisions have put the Patriots where they always seem to be: competing for another Super Bowl.
"He's our leader, and we all follow him," Belichick said.