FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There were so much media surrounding Wes Welker's locker Sunday night that the diminutive, 5-foot-9 receiver had to raise his voice to clear a pathway.
"Can I get to my locker, please?" Welker said tersely. "Thank you."
Welker's final stats look solid. He had eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. But for the second year in a row, Welker had another infamous postseason drop that will go down in Patriots lore.
On third-and-8 with New England leading 13-7, the Patriots drove to the Ravens' 34-yard line aiming to take control of the game. New England quarterback Tom Brady found Welker wide open to his left that would have been another first down. Instead, Welker dropped the pass and forced New England to punt.
The game went downhill for the Patriots after that. New England didn't score the rest of the way and the Ravens recorded 21 unanswered points to advance to Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers.
Welker’s drops have a way of propelling other teams to victory in the playoffs. His fourth-quarter drop in last year’s Super Bowl led to the New York Giants’ game-winning drive and more heartache for the Patriots.
On Sunday, Welker played well otherwise. But he was roughed up in an important third quarter. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard put a helmet-to-helmet hit on Welker and was flagged 15 yards just three plays before his drop.
"Yeah, I was fine, I was fine," Welker said, not making any excuses. "It was just, you know, a missed opportunity."
The once sure-handed Welker has had a lot of "missed opportunities," as he calls it, since Super Bowl XLVI. In fact, Welker led the AFC with 11 drops during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Based on that trend, it wasn't a surprise Welker's hands failed him again in a big spot in Sunday's AFC title game.
Welker is now an unrestricted free agent and will enter the offseason as a polarizing figure. Will Patriots fans most remember Welker's five 100-catch seasons, or the two huge drops in the Super Bowl and AFC title game? That's also a question for the Patriots to answer at the negotiating table.
Welker's production will command a large extension and big annual salary. It's difficult to imagine New England's offense without him. However, it’s also difficult to imagine the Patriots overpaying for a receiver who will be 32 in May, especially after recently paying large extensions to tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
The franchise tag also seems unlikely. New England paid Welker a one-year franchise tender of $9.5 million to retain him this season. But that number goes up to $11.4 million in 2013. That is too expensive for a one-year rental and would eat up New England's salary cap.
It appears it's either a multi-year extension or bust for Welker and the Patriots, who both have about five weeks to make a decision before the Pro Bowl receiver hits the open market.
“I’m really not worried about it at all,” Welker said of his contract status. “This is a tough loss and I’m just trying to get over it at the moment. Like I said, I’m not worried about any of it.”
New England was outplayed in just about every facet. Baltimore was much better in the red zone and won the turnover battle 3-to-1. Welker’s drop was a major turning point, but Patriots players and coaches refused to talk about just one play Sunday night.
“There are a lot of plays in the game; there’s a lot of things we could have done better -- all of us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It really wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t as good as the Ravens tonight. That’s why they’re moving on and we’re not. They were just better than we were in really everything.”
Welker dressed slowly at his locker Sunday night. You imagine the emotions going through his head after a tough loss and wonder whether this was his final shot to win a title with the Patriots.
The final question asked to Welker was how will he get over this game under tough circumstances.
“Same way I did last time,” Welker explained. “The sun will come up tomorrow and you just try to move on.”
But has the sun set on Welker’s career in New England? That is the multimillion dollar question.