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Wes Welker crushed by critical drop

Teammates absolve receiver of blame

Wes Welker was crushed after failing to corral a key pass late in the fourth quarter.

Elsa/Getty Images

Wes Welker was crushed after failing to corral a key pass late in the fourth quarter.

INDIANAPOLIS - Wes Welker’s voice was barely audible. He leaned forward in his director’s chair as he sat at a podium in the Patriots interview area at Lucas Oil Stadium, taking questions about his role in the Patriots’ 21-17 loss to the Giants last night in Super Bowl XLVI.

His crestfallen gaze did little to disguise his disappointment at a critical drop on a Tom Brady second-and-11 attempt from the Giants’ 44 with a little more than four minutes left. Welker had capitalized on a busted coverage that enabled him to run free.

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“I think they got a little mixed up,’’ Welker said. “I think the man over me was playing ‘high look’ and then the safety went to ‘one high.’ That’s why it opened up for me when it did.’’

Brady saw the play develop and targeted Welker with a throw that seemed high and wide. Welker, who said he had made the play “a thousand times before,’’ came up empty-handed as he reached up, allowing the ball to slip through his grasp.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

“It was right there. It hits me right in the hands,” Welker said of his drop. “It’s one I’ll have to live with.’’

“Yeah, he saw it and he threw me the ball,’’ said Welker, who had seven catches for 60 yards, the second-most grabs on the team behind tight end Aaron Hernandez (8 catches, 67 yards, 1 TD).

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“I think he was a little worried about the safety, so he threw it wider or whatever,’’ Welker said. “But, I mean, it was right there. It hits me right in the hands. It’s one I’ll have to live with.’’

Welker fell to the turf and pounded it, well aware of the effect his drop could have on the outcome. Indeed, after another Patriots incompletion on third down and a 32-yard Zoltan Mesko punt, the Giants got the ball at their 12 with 3:46 to go.

That was plenty of time for Giants quarterback Eli Manning, the Super Bowl MVP, to engineer a nine-play, 88-yard scoring march that culminated in Ahmad Bradshaw’s uncontested 6-yard TD.

Asked about Welker’s play, receiver Deion Branch rose to his teammate’s defense.

“That one play wasn’t the game,’’ said Branch, who was targeted six times and made three receptions for 45 yards, including a 19-yard grab on fourth and 16 from the New England 14 that kept alive the Patriots’ last-gasp drive.

“There was so much stuff that went down throughout the third and fourth quarters,’’ Branch said. “All of the plays were big, every play is very important.’’

Welker wasn’t alone in lamenting a critical play that wasn’t made. Branch pointed out that he didn’t make the catch on the third-and-11 attempt after Welker’s drop.

“Had I made the catch that was behind me, that could have been a key third down,’’ Branch said. “But we didn’t connect on it.’’

But another play haunted Branch, and was likely to do so for quite some time - the drop he had on the first play of the Patriots’ last series of the game with 57 seconds left. Branch went across the middle and couldn’t bring in a ball that had been tipped by safety Kenny Phillips, who was playing center field.

“I mean, it was tipped, but I’ve still got to make the catch,’’ Branch said.

That seemed to trigger a rash of drops. On the next play, Hernandez dropped one as he attempted to reel it in and turn upfield.

“One play doesn’t win the game, it’s a whole bunch of plays,’’ echoed Hernandez, who was unable to come up with Brady’s Hail Mary heave into the end zone at the end of the game. “And we didn’t make enough plays. They made more plays than us.’’

That was particularly true of the Giants receivers. The Patriots, meanwhile, had their most sure-handed pass-catchers come up empty when it mattered most.

Asked how uncharacteristic that was, Welker paused before answering.

“I don’t know,’’ he said. “I really don’t know how to answer that question. We work on it all the time and try to make plays. It’s one that will take a while to shake off, that’s for sure.’’

Brady tried his best to console his hurting teammate.

“Wes tried to make [the play], as he always does, he’s a hell of a player,’’ Brady said. “I’ll keep throwing him the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. He’s a phenomenal player and teammate, and I love that guy.’’

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