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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: The quest continues

January 13. 2013 11:30PM
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, center, celebrates with his teammate Shane Vereen, left, after they connected for a touchdown pass during the fourth quarter of Sunday's game. At back left is Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd and at right is receiver Deion Branch. (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Patriots reach the playoffs every year - and if you're a fan of the team, take a moment to appreciate that the use of "every" there is hardly hyperbole - the talk inevitably turns to legacy.

Typically it's a discussion of where another ring would put Tom Brady among the best quarterbacks ever. Or what a fourth Super Bowl title for Bill Belichick would do for his standing among the best coaches ever. And both do stand to climb the annals if they earn another confetti shower.

But this postseason the legacy with the most on the line may be that of Wes Welker.

And, boy, was the receiver's performance in Sunday's divisional playoff quite the start for that quest.

It was running back Shane Vereen who scored three of New England's five touchdowns in a 41-28 win over Houston, when the conference's second seed seized the opportunity to host Baltimore in next Sunday's AFC championship game. Though while the game was in the balance, and before the Patriots scored 25 straight second-half points that stretched their lead to an insurmountable level, Welker was the one Brady repeatedly asked to make a play.

And it was Welker who repeatedly delivered.

There was the third-and-8 that produced a 30-yard gain on the Patriots' second scoring series. There was the 13-yard catch on third-and-11, which was followed by a pretty 47-yard hookup on the Patriots' third scoring drive.

There were two more grabs that kept the Patriots facing manageable downs and distances on the touchdown march that started the second half. And then there was the penalty he drew, a defensive holding, that gave the Patriots a fresh set of downs after Houston had closed to within 10 points and Brady's offense was facing third down.

"The guy can do it all," said special teams captain and receiver Matthew Slater. "We lean on him heavy, but he comes up big every time. I'm happy to be his teammate."

When it was all said and done, Welker finished with a game-high eight catches for 131 yards, a monstrous day made all the more important by the injuries that stung New England early. Multi-purpose weapon Danny Woodhead started the game at running back, but left after incurring a hand injury on the day's first play. On the next possession, Rob Gronkowski reinjured the arm he broke back in November and reportedly saw his season end there.

But his teammates' season won't, in large part because Welker and the rest - specifically Vereen (124 total yards), Aaron Hernandez (six catches, 85 yards), Brandon Lloyd (five catches, 32 yards, touchdown) and Stevan Ridley (82 rushing yards) - didn't let the loss of a couple key contributors keep them from duplicating the point production of the regular-season blowout in which they beat the Texans 42-14.

"We showed that guys can step up and play that role," Welker said. "Everybody kind of upped their game."

With 59 - in just eight games - Welker is now the franchise leader in career playoff catches, surpassing Troy Brown. But his legacy is still somewhat unsettled because, for some, the enduring memory of last February's Super Bowl loss is Welker's failure to reel in a catchable Brady pass that could've pretty much clinched victory for the Patriots. It had a regretful Welker tearing up after, knowing that was a play - "a play I've made a thousand times, and at the biggest moment of my life I don't come up with it," as he put it himself - that more than likely cost him a chance at football's most treasured championship.

But now he gets another chance. And Sunday's performance suggests Welker intends to make sure this one doesn't slip from his grip. He was asked after the win if he was at all motivated by the pregame comments of Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips that minimized him as small and unathletic, though he dismissed the notion as mere noise, and sensibly so.

Welker needs no more motivation than the prize that'll be presented at the end of a tournament now down to its final four teams, considering not only how close he was to capturing it a year ago, but how close he's been since he was traded to the Patriots prior to the 2007 season.

Over those six campaigns, the team is 81-24, meaning it has won better than 77 percent of its games, and next week will be Welker's third AFC championship game. He's won the previous two - and in the two years they've made the playoffs but failed to get to the title tilt during Welker's tenure he was personally in less-than-optimal condition. One he was an honorary captain, having torn his ACL; the other he was still hobbled by that injury. And it's no coincidence the Patriots offense struggled without him.

But in a franchise where greatness will ultimately be measured in rings given what's gone on here since the turn of the century, the details don't change the fact that for all the catches, all the success, all the great moments and big plays - Welker has yet to lift the Lombardi Trophy.

Brady and Belichick have both done it three times in New England, and for as much talk as there is sure to be this week over what a fourth chance would mean, because of the history their legacies here and league-wide are relatively secure. It's Welker whose place in history could be decided over the next few weeks.

And who took a big step toward securing a place next to his coach and his quarterback on Sunday.

Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is Twitter: @davedonofrio

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