Even the Pats' fifth passing option can be lethal

Wes Welker (83) and Randy Moss (81) have 32 pass receiving touchdowns between them in 17 games, including the postseason. Still, there are more worries when defensing the Patriots' passing game. Luc Leclerc/US Presswire

In the 17 regular and postseason games the
New England Patriots have played so far, either Randy Moss or Wes Welker has led the team or tied for the team lead in receptions 16 times. And the two Pro Bowl wide receivers have topped the Patriots in receiving yards on 10 occasions.

Doesn't leave many balls or receiving yards to be parceled out to the rest of the receiving corps, does it, when two guys combine for 220 catches, 2,736 yards and 32 touchdowns in 17 outings?

This is the New England Patriots we are talking about here, with a roster that embraces coach Bill Belichick's credo that the team always comes first and that everyone has a role. This offense features three- or four-wide receiver formations on roughly 75 percent of its plays, has a talented tight end capable of flexing out in the slot and has one of the league's most accomplished third-down tailbacks. And the Patriots threw the ball on 57.3 percent of their snaps during the regular season.

Still, the distribution of wealth is an important factor.

And there are, as the San Diego Chargers' defensive coaches will rediscover in plotting coverage strategies and matchups for the AFC championship game, plenty of playmakers beyond Moss and Welker in the New England receiving arsenal.

"Even if you're taking two guys on every play and putting them on Randy [in coverage], you leave a lot of other guys one-on-one," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said after Saturday's divisional-round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, a game in which Moss caught only one pass for 14 yards but New England still scored 31 points.

"I guess you've just got to try to do the thing you feel is best to stop us. … [But] we have a lot of guys who can make plays."

Jabar Gaffney


Wide Receiver
New England Patriots


Indeed, as wide receiver Jabar Gaffney recently pointed out, the Pats are more than "a two-trick pony" when it comes to the passing game.

Four players besides Moss and Welker had 36 or more receptions in the regular season. Brady spread out 19 of his league-record 50 touchdown passes to a half-dozen other players. That's more than twice as many touchdown catches as the entire Tennessee Titans receiving corps had all season.

Six receivers not named Welker or Moss had at least one catch of 25 yards or more. The Pats' longest scoring pass of the season, for 69 yards, went to sprinter Donte' Stallworth. And it was Gaffney who ran a perfect corner route and pulled in the game-winning 8-yard scoring pass in the 27-24 comeback victory at the Baltimore Ravens, when New England trailed in the final minute of play.

In the first New England-San Diego meeting, a 38-14 Pats' victory in the second week of the regular season, it was mostly Moss and Welker who torched the Chargers' secondary, combining for 16 receptions, 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But tight end Benjamin Watson, who scored the game's first touchdown on a 7-yard catch, had five receptions for 49 yards, and with his speed up the seams, he proved a difficult matchup for the San Diego safeties.

Then again, because of formations and personnel packages, and the sheer talent of the receiving corps the Patriots have assembled, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can create mismatches across the board.

The theory is actually pretty rudimentary: Put so many receivers on the field that the opposition simply doesn't have enough cover defenders to blanket them all.

They just kind of 'out-people' you, really. They spread all those receivers out, and they're all good players, every one of them capable of making a play. Then you add in the protection, and the fact [Tom] Brady is so [accurate] and so smart . . . . and, man, it's just tough, you know?

--Jacksonville Jaguars DB Terry Cousin after the playoff loss to the Patriots

In an era in which the nickel cornerback plays so many snaps for every team in the league that the position has all but taken on starter's status, most franchises have a talented No. 3 corner. But few teams go four-deep in terms of truly talented cornerbacks. And the tough odds facing most New England opponents are that the fourth cornerback on the roster probably isn't going to be good enough to handle the Patriots' fourth-best receiver. Match up safeties against the New England pass-catchers, even on tight end Watson (who runs very well for a big man), and it means even more trouble, because Brady and his receivers work the middle of the field so adroitly.

Said Jacksonville veteran nickel cornerback Terry Cousin after Saturday night's game: "They just kind of 'out-people' you, really. They spread all those receivers out, and they're all good players, every one of them capable of making a play. Then you add in the protection, and the fact Brady is so [accurate] and so smart … and, man, it's just tough, you know? It's hard to keep them all in check. There's just so many good people over there. And when you think you've stopped the main two guys, someone else hurts you."

That was precisely the case Saturday in one of the biggest plays of the game.

It came on a second-and-9 situation in the fourth quarter, with the Pats leading only 28-20. The play was designed as a screen to tailback Laurence Maroney in the left flat. As Brady turned to throw, Jacksonville defensive end Paul Spicer penetrated upfield and right into his passing lane. Brady calmly pulled the ball down, turned his shoulders to the backside of the play and lobbed a perfect rainbow to Stallworth.

Donte' Stallworth


Wide Receiver
New England Patriots


The wideout tapped the ball back to himself with one hand, then controlled it after it ricocheted off his facemask. Stallworth was caught from behind by cornerback Rashean Mathis, in part because he glanced up at the JumboTron in the end zone to see if there was a defender behind him. But the completion was good for 53 yards, came at a critical juncture of the contest and was made by a receiver not named Welker or Moss.

In fact, Stallworth has been a bit chafed lately at having surrendered snaps to Gaffney, whose playing time definitely has increased over the second half of the season. But provided an opportunity to make a play, Stallworth came through. "It's just what we're about," Stallworth said afterward.

For the Patriots, it was indicative of the kinds of plays they have gotten all season from their "other" receivers. For the Jags, it was a painful reminder that any kind of lapse against any of the New England receivers can result in a game-altering play. And for the Chargers, it might have served as a signal of what lies ahead.

"We have a lot of options," Gaffney said. "Take Randy away from us, and Wes might get you. Take them both away, and somebody is going to step up. There are a lot of guys who can catch the football here, believe me."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.