Boston Red Sox

Welker left with uncertain future after another crushing playoff defeat

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Welker left with uncertain future after another crushing playoff defeat

FOXBORO -- Wes Welker took a long, slow walk off of the Gillette Stadium turf, the haze of a season-ending loss descending on him. After quarterback Tom Brady threw an interception to Ravens defensive back Cary Williams to effectively end the AFC Championship Game, Welker was the last Patriots player to slump off the field.

Moments later, when the clock wound to zeros and players from both teams met to shake hands, Welker waded through the bodies from New England's sideline almost all the way to Baltimore's without stopping for a soul, meandering, as though lost inside the place he had called home for six seasons.

"We made it to the AFC Championship, did some good things along the way," Welker said back inside the Patriots locker room after losing to the Ravens, 28-13. "We just didn't do enough in the end."

Welker finished with eight receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown, making him Brady's most effective weapon against the Ravens' brutal defense. But the slot receiver's performance was overshadowed by a third-quarter drop that proved to be one of the game's turning points.

On a third-and-eight play at the Ravens' 34-yard line, Brady targeted Welker with a pass in the flat that would have been good for a first down if completed. But Welker took his eyes off the ball at the last second, and the pass bounced off of his hands and fell to the ground. Baltimore scored a go-ahead touchdown on its ensuing drive.

Three plays before Welker's drop, he was rocked by a hard hit from Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Pollard's shoulder pad struck Welker's facemask immediately after a 24-yard completion, and a 15-yard personal-foul penalty was tacked onto the gain.

Asked if he was feeling the after-effects of the Pollard tackle when he dropped the next ball thrown his way, Welker shook his head.

"I was fine," he said. "Just a missed opportunity."

Welker stood at his locker and was reminded of how last season ended, when New England lost Super Bowl XLVI to the Giants in similarly heartbreaking fashion. Much like on Sunday, that game had hinged on an uncharacteristic drop by the Patriots' historically dependable slot receiver.

The feeling was an all-too-familiar one, and Welker said he would handle it the same way he did a year ago.

"Sun will come up tomorrow," he said softly. "Just try to move on."

Closure may be more difficult to come by if the AFC Championship Game was Welker's last as a Patriot. After playing under the franchise tag this season, he is set to become a free agent.

The Patriots will have three options when it comes to Welker: The two sides could agree to terms on a new multi-year deal; they could franchise tag him for the second consecutive season, which would cost the Patriots about 11.5 million in 2013, making him one of the highest-paid receivers in the league; or, they could let him walk.

Welker said he doesn't know what the future holds, but he insisted his next contract wasn't on his mind.

"I'm not sure," he said when asked if he'll be back in New England. "I'm not worried about that right now."

A reporter pressed him on the matter.

"I'm really not worried about it at all," Welker said. "Tough loss. Just try to get over it at the moment."

And a third time.

"Like I said, I'm not worried about any of it," he said, perturbed.

Welker finished the regular season as one of the league's most productive receivers, reeling in 118 catches for 1354 yards and 6 touchdowns, and in the process he became the first pass-catcher in the history of the NFL to put together five seasons with over 100 receptions.

The Patriots enter this offseason with some uncertainty at the receiver position. Along with Welker, wideouts Julian Edelman and Deion Branch are also scheduled to become free agents. If the Patriots choose not to retain Welker, it would mean a significant alteration to what has been one of the league's most prolific offenses since his arrival to New England in 2007. The possibility exists that the team's most trusted option in the passing game -- and one of Brady's good friends -- is playing elsewhere next season.

Welker's twisting traipse off the Gillette Stadium turf Sunday had a chance to be his last as a member of the Patriots, but he wasn't ready to think about that on Sunday night. Instead, he chose to deal with reality of the moment, another dejecting postseason loss, and the lingering regret of missed opportunities.

"It's always tough," he said. "You put a lot into it . . . all year round. You wanna finish strong. We just didn't do that."

Eduardo Rodriguez's delivery wasn't the same after knee injury, until recently

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Eduardo Rodriguez's delivery wasn't the same after knee injury, until recently

BALTIMORE — If you suspected Eduardo Rodriguez’s knee created a residual effect with his mechanics as he struggled in the second half, you were correct. 

It was here in Baltimore on June 1 that Eduardo Rodriguez hurt his right knee, suffering another subluxation, which he’s prone to. Once he came back — a month and a half later, after the All-Star Break — his performances didn’t match the competency he’d shown pre-injury.

Through the first nine starts back, Rodriguez had a 5.47 ERA. He appeared clearly outside of the playoff rotation picture.

The last three outings have left a different impression, and are a product of improved mechanics. The Red Sox feel Rodriguez is lifting  right leg, his lead leg, higher now.

“I think Eddy’s regained more confidence physically over his last three starts,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “We’ve seen a better delivery. Really since he had come back the injury here, a little bit of abbreviated leg lift. He finally got a little more confidence in picking that knee up and getting a little more drive from his lower half. I think that’s made a huge difference. He’s using his changeup more which is also a huge difference, but I think that lower half has allowed him to do that.”

Rodriguez has a 2.55 September ERA. He has strikeout ability that could be appealing in a postseason setting, but he’s young and inexperienced compared to Rick Porcello and Doug Fister. The fact he’s had confidence issues with his delivery could factor into how the Sox decide their playoff rotation, but his upside and strikeout potential are undeniable.

Rodriguez had a knee subluxation in 2016 that affected his mechanics for a time as well.

Branch on reduced role vs. Saints: "Ask Bill"

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Branch on reduced role vs. Saints: "Ask Bill"

FOXBORO - If Alan Branch is worried about his spot with the Patriots, he isn’t acting that way. A notorious slow starter, Branch played just six snaps in Sunday’s win at New Orleans. And to hear him talk, it’s business as usual.

“It’s not like you can practice 3 technique on a store clerk,” said Branch late Wednesday afternoon. When informed that he probably could if he wanted, Branch smiled and noted “you’d probably get arrested for that.”

All kidding aside, it was stark to see Branch’s ample behind stapled to the bench. He earned a two-year contract this offseason, and his presence on the interior has been critical to the defense’s success. But after getting pushed around a bit too often in that opening night loss to the Chiefs, Branch spent a lot more time watching then playing. Did he know that he wasn’t a big part of the plan?

“That’s another question you gotta ask Bill, man” said Branch. “That’s not something I can talk about.”

Branch has - at times - come off as nonchalant about the game. Wins, losses, big plays, no plays, none of it seems to change his demeanor. Knowing that, I asked him if he was frustrated by his lack of playing time.

“I mean every player wants to be on the field so it is what it is,” he responded. 

Does he think that he’ll be more involved Sunday against the Texans?

“I don’t know what they plan to do with me,” he said. “i just need to go in there and keep my head to the grindstone and work.”

That may be Bill Belichick’s plan: sitting the player to motivate him. It would also seem to be potentially the last resort, and with someone who clearly marches to the beat of his own drum, it’s unclear how he’ll respond.