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."