Heat's on Wes Welker, too

DENVER -- Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker found himself in a familiar position after his team's 24-17 AFC divisional playoff win over San Diego -- talking about a play he couldn't make.

It was a seam route that sent him 25 yards upfield, with two Chargers defensive backs shadowing him as Peyton Manning launched a pass. It was a tough catch to be sure, one that would've put Denver in position to take a 21-0 lead late in the first half. It also was a throw Welker couldn't handle, as the ball bounced off his fingers and landed harmlessly on the turf.

That play wouldn't be such a big deal if this weren't Welker we're talking about today. He's known for his sure hands and his exceptional reliability, but right now he has a serious image problem. The team with which he spent six seasons starring -- the New England Patriots -- is coming to Denver for the AFC Championship Game. When that game begins, Welker will need to deliver the big plays that haven't been part of his playoff experience in a notably long time.

Patriots fans surely remember his key drop in last year's AFC Championship Game loss to the Baltimore Ravens. New England held a 13-7 lead early in the third quarter of that contest when quarterback Tom Brady lofted a pass toward Welker on a third-and-8 play from the Baltimore 34-yard line. That ball caromed off the star receiver's hands that day, as well. Instead of putting themselves in position to create a two-score advantage, the Patriots watched the Ravens steal the momentum and cruise to a 28-13 victory.

Welker was just as culpable a year earlier, when New England led the New York Giants 17-15 late in Super Bowl XLVI. Brady once again looked to Welker on a critical second-and-11 play from the Giants' 44-yard line with four minutes left. In fairness to Welker, the pass was a little high for a 5-foot-9, 190-pound receiver. But it was low enough for him to get two hands on it just before it skipped off his fingers.

Welker has been in the NFL long enough -- 10 seasons, to be exact -- to know how this looks. For all the accolades he's earned with his 841 career receptions, he's also become best known for the handful of balls he couldn't grab.

It helps that he's a stand-up guy, one who's always willing to take the blame for how those mishaps have factored into his team's failures. It also is something worth keeping an eye on as the Broncos try to go through New England on their way to this year's Super Bowl.

Welker was supposed to be the ultimate difference-maker when the Broncos signed him as an unrestricted free agent last offseason. He was supposed to give Manning the dynamic underneath presence this offense lacked last season and also strip Brady of his favorite target. It was the ultimate win-win for Denver. No slot receiver in football had caught more passes over the previous six seasons than Welker had amassed in New England.

Today the perspective on that deal feels a bit different. The Patriots got 105 receptions out of Julian Edelman in 2013 and another 54 out of Danny Amendola, the man who was supposed to replace Welker before he wound up missing four games with injuries. That's the thing about slot receivers that people often tend to miss when admiring their video-game numbers. You can find a lot of guys who can catch 4- and 5-yard passes in this league.

What was supposed to separate Welker from everybody else was his consistency. Regardless of the situation, he could move the chains or help clinch a game. At one point he even displayed an ability to move out wide and make plays against top cornerbacks. That's what the Broncos were expecting when he arrived.

Welker has given the Broncos plenty of numbers. Even while missing three games with a concussion, he caught 77 passes -- 10 for touchdowns -- during the regular season and six more Sunday in his first game back (for 38 yards and a touchdown). His presence on short and intermediate routes made life easier for fellow wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and surely created more opportunities for Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas. Manning was the biggest winner in all this, as he set NFL records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) in a single season.

Manning actually should be able to relate to the questions about Welker at this stage of his career. For years, Manning has heard how his own gaudy statistics aren't nearly as important as his less-than-stellar record in the postseason. Though Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to two Super Bowls -- winning one after the 2006 season -- he's also 10-11 overall in the playoffs. Even now, as his career winds down, Manning still has critics who question his comfort in the tightest of moments.

Welker has managed to escape such scrutiny on a national level because he's usually played in the shadows of bigger names. When he arrived in New England, Randy Moss was the receiver who dominated the headlines. When Welker started going to Pro Bowls (he's been to five), he was the undrafted underdog who made good on his opportunity to shine. And when the Patriots couldn't win Super Bowls in either the 2007 or 2011 season, it was Brady and coach Bill Belichick who caught the bulk of the blame.

If not for Brady's wife, Gisele Bundchen, we might never have paid as much attention to Welker's failings as we do today. A cameraman caught her complaining about New England receivers dropping passes in Super Bowl XLVI -- she famously said "My husband cannot f---ing throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time" -- and that little controversy lasted a few days. Though Welker certainly was motivation for that rant, the consensus then was that he was still human. That was simply his time to have a tough moment at the office.

Now we have more evidence that there could be a larger problem at work here, that this may be who Wes Welker really is. That's not to discredit his numbers or the way he's handled his career, either. By all accounts, Welker has been the kind of player any franchise would love to have for many years.

But come Sunday, when the game is on the line, he'll have to prove something his former team obviously questioned: That he's the kind of player who can deliver when it really matters most.