FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was a situation that Wes Welker has been in countless times: Pressure moment. Gillette Stadium. A high, spiraling punt making its way through the air toward him as he stood deep in his own territory.
Welker often has turned those situations into something special, or at the least ensured that disaster was averted. That’s why what unfolded in overtime late Sunday night was a cruel twist for the New England Patriot-turned-Denver Bronco, as his slight indecisiveness contributed to the game-changing play -- the punt touching teammate Tony Carter with New England safety Nate Ebner recovering to set up the winning 31-yard field goal in the Patriots' 34-31 victory.
Welker said it’s his job to race up, wave his arms, and yell, “Peter! Peter! Peter!” if he decides against fielding the punt.
“I was probably a little late getting it to him,” he acknowledged. “I have to do a better job of getting up to him and getting those guys out of the way. I was a little bit in between, and you can’t be that way.”
Carter had been blocking Patriots gunner Marquice Cole, and thought he was setting up a return for Welker on the sky-high 42-yard punt that landed at the Broncos’ 15.
Welker explained his mindset as the ball soared through the air on a frigid, wind-whipped night, fans chanting his last name in an attempt to distract him.
“I just felt like there was a lot of traffic, it was a high ball, and basically didn’t want to get into a situation where somebody is running into me or anything else. It ended up with the situation that I didn’t want to happen in the first place,” he said.
Truth be told, this whole night could fall into that category for Welker.
He didn’t say it, but his highly anticipated return to Gillette Stadium, where he was an instrumental part of six successful Patriots seasons, had to be a bit bittersweet. One just had to follow him out of the Broncos' locker room afterward and see the meaningful embraces he had with several former teammates to understand that.
When Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia gave him a hug and the two exchanged a warm greeting, Welker said, “Miss you too, bud.” Then it was safety Devin McCourty, linebacker Dane Fletcher ... and right down the line. Welker even popped into the Patriots' players lounge after the game in a reminder that the strong bonds formed from 2007-2012 don’t just disappear.
On the field, his emotional day began when Patriots owner Robert Kraft approached him during warmups and the two hugged. Kraft must have told Welker to keep an eye on the scoreboard because Welker looked up about 10 minutes before kickoff to see a highlight montage the club put together for him, followed by a thank-you note that read: “The Kraft Family, the New England Patriots thank Wes Welker for six memorable seasons.”
Welker was touched.
“It was very, very classy of them to do something like that. I appreciate it very much,” he said. “It was a little different, for sure. It was great seeing Mr. Kraft. I have a lot of respect for him as a man and as an owner of a team. He’s a good one.”
Then there was Belichick, who sought Welker out after the game for an embrace, along with several others, including receiver Julian Edelman, who sprinted across the field to find him. Welker had joked with ESPN’s Tedy Bruschi in an interview that whatever exchange he’d have with Belichick would probably be awkward, but he struck a different tone after the game.
“It wasn’t awkward at all. It was good to see him. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach,” Welker said. “He came over and he was like, ‘Good job, we’ll see you all again, I’m sure.’”
Welker never did get to see his best pal, quarterback Tom Brady, even though he waited for him on the field afterward, only to call it off when Brady was pulled away from an NBC interview. “I kind of looked for him, but he’s Mr. Paparazzi after games,” Welker cracked.
Turns out Welker waited for Brady after both conducted interviews but the two couldn’t connect, adding to the downer of a night for Welker.
“You try to make it just a regular game. It’s hard at times, but you try to just go out there and focus and try to do your job,” he said, adding that he was unsure what the home crowd was chanting when he was back fielding punts.
It was “Wel-ker! Wel-ker! Wel-ker!” While the fans cheered Welker in the pregame during the classy highlight montage, they also razzed him a bit when he couldn’t hold on to a short pass on third-and-8 in overtime. “I just have to squeeze the ball in tighter on that and make that play,” he said.
Between that and the final punt, Welker was a big part in the outcome. Just not the way he hoped it would be.
Asked if the night helped give him closure from the Patriots chapter of his career, he shrugged.
“It probably would have been a lot better closure if we would have won,” he answered. “I had a lot of good years here and things like that, but I feel like I’ve had closure before and I’ve kind of moved on.”
Maybe so. But the words, much like the way Welker approached the game-changing punt in overtime, just weren’t very decisive.