Last week, the Indianapolis Colts outraged virtually everyone beside Mercury Morris by looking into the face of perfection and seeing Curtis Painter. This week, the world was reminded why: a Wes Welker injury.
The Colts shrugged at a chance to finish the season undefeated, taking out quarterback Peyton Manning in the third quarter of a game against the New York Jets last week and replacing him with rookie Painter, who had never played a meaningful snap in the NFL. Ahead 15-10 when Manning left, the Colts lost 29-15.
For the New England Patriots, Welker is perhaps the most important player not named Tom Brady, and he appears to have suffered a serious knee injury in the Patriots’ relatively meaningless regular-season finale. No injury report is yet available.
The 10-6 Patriots, who went on to lose the game to the Houston Texans, are clearly not the force they were last decade, yet they were taking shape as a dark horse – a team no one wanted to face in the playoffs.
But the New Orleans Saints had showed how to shut them down offensively in a 38-17 rout earlier in the season: neutralize Welker and fellow receiver Randy Moss, and Brady has no other dangerous options. Welker led the NFL in receptions with 122 despite having missed two games this season.
Now, if Welker is out of the playoffs (as comments by family seem to suggest), neutralizing the Patriot offense just became a lot easier.
The Patriots' situation Sunday, of course, does not equate to Colts' situation last week. The Patriots did rest some players carrying knocks Sunday, and Welker was injured in the first quarter – before Coach Bill Belichick would have considered taking him from the game.
But Sunday's development in Houston provides a graphic counterpoint to the chorus of fans and analysts who pilloried the Colts’ decision.
Rest without reward
Colts team president Bill Polian is an outspoken skeptic of the notion that momentum carries into the playoffs. Instead, under his guidance, the Colts have repeatedly rested players in the late season when games no longer affect playoff standing.
Critics have cited this policy as one of the reasons that the Colts’ have not been able to convert regular-season dominance into postseason success. Though they are the winningest team of the 2000s, they have won only one Super Bowl in that time.
But Polian contends the policy of rest has nothing to do with the Colts’ playoff underachievement, and statistics aren’t conclusive.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the league will look into measures that would give teams that have already locked in their playoff spots incentives to play their best players. But Welker’s injury is the cautionary tale that NFL coaches want to avoid.
Follow us on Twitter.