HOUSTON -- There are certain times when the mood in the postgame locker room is so somber, it makes one wonder how a team could respond the following week.
This wasn't supposed to be one of them.
Just when it appeared the Patriots might be a team that nobody wanted to face in the playoffs, they were dealt a devastating blow Sunday in a season finale that was approached as a hopeful momentum-builder but turned into a challenging obstacle course when receiver Wes Welker, in agonizing pain, was carted to the locker room with a towel over his face after seriously injuring his left knee.
Welker, who was injured when he tried to plant his foot after making a catch, tore both his anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament, a source close to the situation told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, but is scheduled to undergo more testing Monday. The diagnosis would presumably end his season.
How do the Patriots overcome the loss of Welker, who broke his own franchise record with 123 catches this season and racked up 1,348 yards receiving?
In a year in which it seems there has been a new question each week to define the season, this is the latest. Rookie Julian Edelman will step in -- he did so admirably in Sunday's 34-27 loss to the Texans, with 10 catches for 103 yards -- but there is simply only one Welker. To say this is a damaging blow to the Patriots' championship hopes would be an understatement.
"You're heartbroken for Wes because he's so important to our team, he's probably the heart and soul of our team," cornerback Shawn Springs said.
Little else needs to be said. Springs nailed it.
Welker's toughness and spirit has been one constant in an up-and-down season, and the quietness in the Patriots' locker room reflected that something major had just rocked the foundation of the club. Players talked about turning the page and being excited for the playoffs -- and perhaps the collective group will find a way to channel the mental toughness required to move on -- but the day couldn't have been much worse for them.
It was bad enough to lose a game when leading 27-13 in the fourth quarter, which represented another major collapse. In the Patriots' six losses this season, they have been outscored 65-17 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Add in the loss of the NFL's leading receiver, and any momentum the team had generated last week in a solid 35-7 pasting of the Jaguars was decisively thwarted.
"It's football and guys go down all the time -- on our team, on other teams -- and it sucks, it's unfortunate," tight end Benjamin Watson said. "When you are a team, you have 10 other guys and when one goes down, the other guy fills in and the train keeps on moving. That's what we're going to try to do."
The words were what one would expect to hear, but in other corners of the room, actions spoke just as loudly.
Quarterback Tom Brady, who has been as accessible as ever this season, was presumably so frustrated at the turn of events that he declined to answer questions from reporters. A chair was placed in his empty locker and he was long gone by the time reporters entered the room after a lengthy delay. That left backup Brian Hoyer to do the talking.
Brady will likely clean things up Monday in his weekly radio interview and probably explain that he didn't want to say anything he would regret. It was that type of day.
Perhaps no Welker moment best captures what he means to the Patriots than one from a few weeks ago, when the team was slogging through a listless game against the Panthers and he absorbed a big hit. Springing to his feet, he raised his hands in the air and the quiet home stadium erupted to provide a spark that led to victory.
It was a situation in which one of the smallest players on the team (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) put the team on his back. The Patriots won't be able to count on that any longer, so how does a team recover when it loses its heart and soul?
That's what we'll find out next weekend in the playoffs.