FOXBORO — When Bill Belichick is finished with a player, that player is not necessarily finished.
But it seems the players on whom Belichick makes his coldest decisions (cold football decisions come naturally to the Patriots coach) never come back to haunt his Patriots in a game of great consequence.
They just do not.
He is Bill Belichick, so he knows.
Adam Vinatieri, the right foot of a dynasty, did go 3-for-3 on field goals against his former team in the 2006 AFC title game when the Colts and Peyton Manning rallied from an 18-point deficit to win. But the kicker who replaced Vinatieri in New England, Stephen Gostkowski, was 2-for-2 that day. (Official ruling: Painful Patriots loss in Indy, no haunting by Vinatieri.)
Now, though, with New England one victory from a sixth trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick Era, there is an uneasy feeling that Belichick may have pressed his luck when he let go of wide receiver Wes Welker, whose departure to the Denver Broncos as a free agent last March set off howls of protest across New England.
The howling unnerved team owner Bob Kraft, who swerved from his normal business comportment to publicly question the competence of Welker's agents for not taking what Kraft considered a better offer from the Patriots.
Even at that time, one just knew the Patriots would be meeting up with Welker this coming Sunday in the AFC title game. This was the only way it could happen. Manning would see to that.
So as the Patriots prepare to head for Denver, Welker lurks. He could become the first former Patriot whose leaving was loud to disrupt the Belichickian saga. After all, former Patriot Dan Klecko caught a TD pass from Manning during the Colts' comeback in the 2006 AFC title game, but few in New England wailed four months earlier when Belichick cut Klecko.
Patriots defenders on Wednesday said the Wes Welker they see on film as a Bronco looks the same as the Wes Welker who during six seasons in New England had a franchise-record 672 receptions.
“His quickness, his toughness, his competitiveness,” said Patriots safety Steve Gregory. “The guy has done it at a high level for a long time. He's experienced, he understands the game. And when he's on the same page with his quarterback (that would be Peyton Manning), it only makes (Denver) gell that much more.”
Welker, though, has been twice concussed this season, and last Sunday against the San Diego Chargers he wore a helmet that looked borrowed from a bobsled team. He had six receptions for 38 yards, including a touchdown, in that 24-17 Divisional round win, after missing the final three regular-season games.
Patriots fans like that Welker played poorly in his return to Foxboro on Nov. 24 (4 catches, 31 yards), including his late decision not to catch a punt that led to Gostkowski's winning field goal in overtime.
Also, while Welker caught 69 passes in the postseason with the Patriots, New England fans talk more about the pass he “dropped” (it was a tough ball to catch) that could have locked up Super Bowl XLVI.
Welker is missed less in New England these days also because Julian Edelman finally stayed healthy for 16 games and adequately replaced Welker as Tom Brady's 100-catch guy.
But a greater burden is placed on Edelman in New England's passing attack than there is on Welker (73 catches, 778 yards, 10 TDs during the regular season) in Denver's deeper attack, which also includes wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and tight end Julius Thomas.
“From Decker to Wes to Julius to Demaryius, a bunch of guys who can win one-on-one match-ups,” said Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. “Kind of gives Peyton a bunch of options.”
Welker, when he is healthy and going good, turns third-and-threes and third-and-fours into move-the-chain gimmes.
“He's still Wes Welker,” insisted Talib.
Over the years, New England fans anguished over the departures of such vital Patriots as Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Asante Samuel, Richard Seymour and Randy Moss.
Some of those players continued being good players after Belichick made his cold business decisions. But Welker on Sunday has a chance to do what none of them did: Make Belichick really regret his decision.