FOXBOROUGH - Wes Welker was on his back deep in the Patriots’ end of the field, looking up into the December gloom while clutching the ball under his arm. He had just been knocked down by Panthers defensive back Charles Godfrey, the kind of hit that makes a stadium hush and makes most players wobble away and take a break.
"You’re either going to stay down or get up," Welker said. "Might as well get on up."
Welker stumbled when he did, but he stood up. The Patriots, lifeless for most of the afternoon, followed. After one of the franchise’s most tumultuous weeks in years, they snapped their two-game losing streak and earned a season-preserving, 20-10 victory over Carolina yesterday at Gillette Stadium.
In the standings, the victory will show the Patriots righted their season and maintained a one-game lead in the AFC East over the Dolphins and Jets, both winners yesterday. They extended their record at home to 7-0, owing largely to a defense that allowed the Panthers barely 100 yards in the second half.
"I’m proud of the way we fought today," said quarterback Tom Brady, who challenged his teammates after last week’s loss in Miami. "It was a hard-fought win. It’s a December win."
It was also an ugly win. Under a gunmetal gray sky, facing a 5-7 team using its backup quarterback, the Patriots earned no style points. Wide receiver Randy Moss endured his worst day as a Patriot, and afterward had his effort questioned by Panthers defensive backs. The Patriots committed three turnovers inside Carolina’s 40-yard line. Brady fought through the triumvirate of injuries that threatened his playing status.
"We’ve played better and lost," linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "We’ll do anything it takes to win."
Welker would not let them lose yesterday. The Patriots faced third and 2 after Godfrey decked Welker in the third quarter, and Welker adjusted his facemask and walked back to the huddle.
The Patriots had produced little offense in the first half. Almost every time they mounted a threat, it dissolved. Three times, they turned the ball over in Carolina territory, including a Sammy Morris fumble inside the 20 on their first drive of the second half. They scored only on a Kevin Faulk draw at the end of the first half, which Carolina coach John Fox set up by having John Kasay attempt a 53-yard field goal through the rain.
When Godfrey blasted Welker, the Patriots were tied at 7 and 88 yards from the other end zone. Welker ran a drag pattern from right to left, and Brady held the ball until he came free. Brady drilled a pass into his stomach, and Welker gained 13 yards. Welker hopped up and thrust his arms in the air, injecting life into a moribund crowd - and his team.
"It just kind of happened," Welker said. "It wasn’t anything planned. I kind of took a hit and decided to kind of get the crowd into it and try to get us going a little bit. We had been pretty flat, and we needed a big drive right there. I think it energized some of the guys."
The Patriots kept driving behind Welker, screaming across the middle of the field and charging ahead. He caught five passes on the drive for 64 yards, the last of which went for 23 yards and gave the Patriots first and goal at the 8.
On third down, Brady found tight end Benjamin Watson streaking in front of Panthers linebacker Jon Beason a yard deep in the end zone. Brady zipped a pass to Watson, who held on after Captain Munnerlyn drilled him. The Patriots had finally capitalized on their drive.
"That," coach Bill Belichick said, "was huge."
Watson flipped the ball in the air. As it rolled around, Brady chased down the ball and scooped it up. Brady spiked the ball so hard it bounced 15 feet in the air.
Perhaps he needed to expel his frustrations. Hampered by the injuries to his ribs, right finger, and right shoulder, Brady played the first half as if an imposter was wearing No. 12. He completed 8 of 15 passes for 59 yards, throwing one interception. Only one of his passes gained more than 10 yards, and Moss promptly fumbled it.
Brady threw four passes in Moss’s direction. Moss dropped two, fumbled one, and watched another turn into an interception. In the fourth quarter, Moss drew an offside penalty. Late in the game, Moss sat by himself on the bench, his helmet on, and Brady walked over to yell in his face.
The emotions of the week and the importance of the game led to atypical sideline demeanors. Kevin Faulk, not prone to outbursts, stalked the sideline during the first half at one point and excoriated every member of the team.
"As a veteran player, you know what’s at stake this time of year and what your goal is," Faulk said. "And in order to reach our goal, we may have to get a little emotional."
Tension ratcheted in the Patriots locker room last week after four players showed up late for a team meeting Wednesday and Belichick sent them home. Players decided they could not allow the incident to matter yesterday.
"No effect," Leigh Bodden said. "That’s outside of football. We control what we can control on the field. We went out to practice, handled our business. If we wanted to come away with the victory, that’s what we had to do."
By game’s end, the Patriots could kneel on the ball, close to the spot where Welker had lain earlier. In the locker room after the game, Belichick spoke about the importance of starting their work Monday.
"Now," Brady said, "it’s on to the most important game of the year."