Plenty of fight in Welker

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Perfect. Just perfect.

Summing up receiver Wes Welker, rookie Julian Edelman said simply: "He's a fighter. He's tough, one of the best. He's Rocky."

Cue the "Eye of the Tiger" music, because Edelman nailed it. In the decisive moments of the Patriots' 20-10 victory over the Panthers, the remarkable, resilient Welker pulled a "Rocky."

He got pummeled on a third-quarter reception. Then he popped up and raised both arms in the air and the crowd erupted. On the next play, he caught a 13-yard pass and you could sense the momentum building, "Rocky"-style.

Welker's back-to-back plays sparked the Patriots on their longest drive of the season, a 96-yard march that gave them a 14-7 lead they wouldn't relinquish. Welker added catches of 9 and 23 yards on the drive, then later roared with emotion next to quarterback Tom Brady on the sideline, a revealing snapshot of two gutsy professionals who were fighting through pain.

On a day when the turnover-prone Patriots looked like a team heading nowhere from a postseason perspective -- which, in the big picture, has to be troubling to New England fans -- Welker was once again wonderful. He totaled 10 receptions for 105 yards, with coach Bill Belichick paying him the highest compliment in comparing him to franchise icon Troy Brown.

What else can be said about Welker at this point?

"He's a great player, 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," Brady said. "Those plays that he made there in the third quarter really sparked us."

It was the turning point of the game, actually.

The game was tied 7-7 midway through the third quarter, and the Patriots started at their own 4. On second-and-8, Welker caught a 6-yard pass -- his 100th reception of the season -- and was crunched by safety Charles Godfrey. He briefly stayed on the ground before going the "Rocky" route.

Then he delivered a 13-yard reception on third-and-2.

"He's got a lot of heart," Belichick said. "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."

While Panthers defenders questioned the effort of Randy Moss, they had nothing but praise for Welker.

"He is coming into his own, a very underrated player," safety Chris Harris said. "He is one of the best, if not the best, in the game right now. He is very crafty. It is kind of like backyard football -- 'go get open' -- and he is very good at it."

"He's a tough guy," added cornerback Chris Gamble. "He knows he's going to get hit, but he's going to bounce back up. That's one of the things I respect about his game."

So where do the Patriots go from here? On Sunday they looked nothing like a team building momentum heading into the playoffs, which has been their modus operandi in past Decembers. Instead, they scraped past an inferior opponent to stay in first place in the AFC East by one game and lived to fight off their challengers for another week.

Led by "Rocky," of course.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.