There was a moment, in the second half of New England's 20-10 victory of the Carolina Panthers, that may have gone unnoticed if you blinked or turned your head for a split-second.
With the ball on their own 4-yard line, the Patriots began what would wind up being a 96-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive. On the second play, wide receiver Wes Welkerbolted from the line of scrimmage in the left slot and grabbed, in stride, a quick pass from quarterback Tom Brady. Welker was immediately met by Panthers safety Charles Godfrey, who de-cleated his smaller opponent.
Welker appeared momentarily dazed, but after a moment, got himself back on his feet and walked back to the huddle. But not before motioning with his arms to make it visible to the crowd that he wanted them to get more involved. On the very next play, Brady found Welker again for a 13-yard gain.
From the Panthers 31 seven plays later, again in the left slot, Welker ran an a post pattern and found an opening in Carolina's zone defense 15 yards downfield. Brady hit Welker a little high, forcing the receiver to jump for the ball. But when he came down, he hit the ground running and continued down to the Panthers 8 before sliding out of bounds.
After tossing the ball to an official, Welker then lifted his arms over his head – spontaneously, he later explained – to exhort both the Gillette Stadium crowd and his teammates.
"We had been flat pretty much of the whole game and we need a big drive right there," Welker told reporters. "That's when you got to step up and make some plays and get the crowd into it. I think it energized some of the guys and led us down to the touchdown."
The Patriots desperately needed an infusion of enthusiasm, because to that point, the offense was playing listlessly.
"I don't think you can call it one particular thing," Welker continued, trying to pinpoint reasons for his teammates' languid performance. "It's a long season and you just got to go out there and keep on playing and keep on grinding it out. It's tough, but it's what you got to do and it's kind of what it comes down to."
Welker finished the day with 10 catches for 105 yards, extending his streak of 100-catch seasons to three (each with New England). He accomplished that feat in just 11 games this year – he missed two games due to injury – which tied former Indianapolis Colt Marvin Harrisonfor fewest games to reach the 100-catch mark in a season.
When told of that statistic and the other receivers in that rare air – the likes of Jerry Riceand Herman Moore– Welker's response was demure, saying "I wouldn't put myself in their category at all. Those guys are obviously Hall of Famers and I still have a lot of years ahead of me and a lot of plays that I need to continue to make out there on the field."
At a time when many media and fans alike are questioning the level of leadership on this Patriots team, Welker demonstrated Sunday against Carolina how one of the smaller players on the field can have a tremendous impact and ripple effect on the rest of his teammates.
While FOX TV cameras, which broadcast the game, repeatedly showed shots of wide receiver Randy Mossapparently sitting dejected on the Patriots bench and getting pep-talks from Brady (he fumbled, dropped a pair of passes, and caught just one all game), Welker's game-leading receiving performance and uncharacteristic arm-raising gesture provided a distinct contrast.
"It's what it's about, being a leader and really kind of stepping up," Welker proclaimed in his post-game remarks. "You can't be a guy that's going to be 'rah-rah' and then go in the tank and not play up to par of what you want your teammates to do. You got to back that up.
"Anytime you sit there and call a team out or sit there and try to do some 'rah-rah' type deal, you got to back it up. That's what it comes down to and I want to make sure I bring it every week like that … make sure that if I say something, I'm out there doing it as well."
New England responded to Welker's unplanned exuberance by finishing that drive with a Brady-to-Benjamin Watsontouchdown pass and finishing off the Panthers with two, long Stephen Gostkowskifield goals in the fourth quarter.
"He's one of the toughest guys I've been around," noted running back Sammy Morris, a Texas Tech alum like Welker. "He's not big in stature, but he's just as tough as they come. That was definitely a spark that we needed."
"You watch him play, you're going to get a spark a lot," center Dan Koppenagreed. "He just goes out and gives you everything he's got on every play. You want a definition of a football player? You look at Number 83. He's a tough guy and one of the keys to our offense. He does that, you better get a spark."
Head coach Bill Belichickemployed a hockey analogy to describe what Welker means to the Patriots offense.
"Wes, he's got a lot of heart. He's a heck of a football player. He shows up every day to work. I know he's been banged up, but he fights through it, returns punts, catches the ball, blocks. He goes into the corner after the puck, too. He's not just scoring goals; he's going in there and digging it out in the corner. He's a tough football player."
"Yeah, he's a great player," added Brady, "and it seems like whenever we've got to make a critical play in a game, he's the guy that's making the play. Those plays that he made there in the third quarter really sparked us. We had a couple good drives there. We didn't get the ball in the end zone on the first one, but the second one was a great drive and Wes was the key ingredient, as he always seems to be."
Monday locker room notebook
A typical Monday in the Patriots locker room, with most players having left early.
However, LB Adalius Thomaswas among the few who stopped to talk to reporters. He entered the room laughing with some of his teammates before answering questions for the media.
Thomas was deactivated for the Panthers game (fallout, it seems, from his comments last week following the snow storm), but said he watched from home and "cheered the guys on" from afar.
"We won, so, that's the most important thing," he added.
Does he expect to be active and play this weekend at Buffalo?
"I prepare every week the same way," Thomas replied.
As for his latest "healthy scratch" from the lineup and his early dismissal last Wednesday, Thomas insisted that "we've moved on. Last week is done."