HOUSTON - Personally, I've never been a believer in resting players when there are games still to be played. I'm still not.
Given what happened Sunday afternoon in Houston, however, I can see why so many people are.
On the Patriots' fourth offensive play, Pro Bowl wide receiver Wes Welkertook a short pass from fellow all-star Tom Brady and turned up field. As he planted his left foot to avoid Texans safety *Bernard Pollard, Welker's cleats appeared to get caught in the Reliant Stadium grass. His knee buckled, and as Welker hit the ground, he clutched his knee and remained there so several moments.
Welker's injury looked a lot like the one Brady suffered a season ago. The one that required extensive surgery and months of rehabilitation. At this point, the extent of Welker's injury is unclear, but watching him limp off the field, sit dejectedly on the bench with his head in his hands, and get carted to the locker with a towel over his head was an indication, it seemed, that he may not return to the lineup anytime soon.
New England can ill afford to enter the playoffs next weekend without one of their most potent offensive weapons. But it looks like they may have no choice. They've struggled all this year to find a consistent third wide receiver behind Welker and Randy Moss. The potential absence of Welker now leaves the Patriots particularly thin at the position.
With a playoff spot already guaranteed, the Patriots' only incentive to beat Houston was to try to secure the third seed in the AFC (which they eventually did with Cincinnati's loss at the Jets). All week, speculation swirled around the team and how they would approach this game. The consensus in the media was that head coach Bill Belichickwould rest his key players to prevent something as devastating as Welker's injury. But the Patriots came out fighting, even after losing Welker, and had a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.
As they've done too many times already this season, though, the Patriots squandered that seemingly comfortable cushion and wound up losing to the Texans, 34-27. But clearly, Welker's loss is the more immediate concern.
Without him, New England will likely have to rely on rookie Julian Edelmanto fill the gaping void. He did so against Houston, finishing the afternoon as the Patriots' leading receiver (10 catches, 103 yards).
"I don't know what happened to him or what it is," Edelman said of Welker's status afterward, "but, yeah, I'm going to have to do a lot of studying and prepare like I've prepared all year. All I can do is work hard and take the coaching that we've had and go with it.
"That's what I did this week – prepare for every play. Whatever happens, happens."
After the game, Brady uncharacteristically exited the visitors locker room at Reliant Stadium without speaking to reporters. Instead, backup QB Brian Hoyer, who saw some action at various points in the game, fielded questions from the media, including some about fellow rookie Edelman's performance.
"He really stepped up and played well," Hoyer said. "He's a tough guy. He's going to fight for every yard and that's what you saw out there today. I think he did a great job.
"I think people have been comparing him to Wes a long time. But Julian's his own player and he did really well today."
"He did a good job," added TE Chris Baker. "He came in and has gotten better each week. He's not a rookie anymore."
Edelman can't afford to be. Especially not if he's going to have to replace Welker in the Patriots offense this post-season.
"I have to keep on working," he said. "We didn't get the win out here. We have a lot of room for improvement. We have to put this behind us. We have another season coming on. We're going to work hard, see what we can do."
"We've got a lot of work to do going forward," echoed RB Fred Taylor. "You hate to lose … we just gotta move forward. We've got another season to look forward to."
"Right now," said Baker, "we're just looking forward to the playoffs."
"The big thing is, we have the playoffs coming up," Hoyer emphasized, "so we have to move on and focus on next week."
Most likely without Welker.