Heat's on Wes Welker, too


DENVER -- Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker found himself in a familiar position after his team's 24-17 AFC divisional playoff win over San Diego -- talking about a play he couldn't make.

It was a seam route that sent him 25 yards upfield, with two Chargers defensive backs shadowing him as Peyton Manning launched a pass. It was a tough catch to be sure, one that would've put Denver in position to take a 21-0 lead late in the first half. It also was a throw Welker couldn't handle, as the ball bounced off his fingers and landed harmlessly on the turf.

That play wouldn't be such a big deal if this weren't Welker we're talking about today. He's known for his sure hands and his exceptional reliability, but right now he has a serious image problem. The team with which he spent six seasons starring -- the New England Patriots -- is coming to Denver for the AFC Championship Game. When that game begins, Welker will need to deliver the big plays that haven't been part of his playoff experience in a notably long time.

Patriots fans surely remember his key drop in last year's AFC Championship Game loss to the Baltimore Ravens. New England held a 13-7 lead early in the third quarter of that contest when quarterback Tom Brady lofted a pass toward Welker on a third-and-8 play from the Baltimore 34-yard line. That ball caromed off the star receiver's hands that day, as well. Instead of putting themselves in position to create a two-score advantage, the Patriots watched the Ravens steal the momentum and cruise to a 28-13 victory.

Welker was just as culpable a year earlier, when New England led the New York Giants 17-15 late in Super Bowl XLVI. Brady once again looked to Welker on a critical second-and-11 play from the Giants' 44-yard line with four minutes left. In fairness to Welker, the pass was a little high for a 5-foot-9, 190-pound receiver. But it was low enough for him to get two hands on it just before it skipped off his fingers.

Welker has been in the NFL long enough -- 10 seasons, to be exact -- to know how this looks. For all the accolades he's earned with his 841 career receptions, he's also become best known for the handful of balls he couldn't grab.

It helps that he's a stand-up guy, one who's always willing to take the blame for how those mishaps have factored into his team's failures. It also is something worth keeping an eye on as the Broncos try to go through New England on their way to this year's Super Bowl.

Welker was supposed to be the ultimate difference-maker when the Broncos signed him as an unrestricted free agent last offseason. He was supposed to give Manning the dynamic underneath presence this offense lacked last season and also strip Brady of his favorite target. It was the ultimate win-win for Denver. No slot receiver in football had caught more passes over the previous six seasons than Welker had amassed in New England.

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