Last week, the Indianapolis Colts forced the NFL to confront the ethical issues of good teams not playing their best players and the effect on leaguewide playoff chases. On Sunday, as Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker sat on the bench with a towel over his head, his season over after tearing apart his left knee in the first quarter of a somewhat meaningless game, he provided a disheartening counterargument to balance the discussion.
When Welker crumpled to the turf in Houston, two thoughts immediately came to mind: The first was that the unpredictability of sports is precisely why the Patriots' loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl two years ago will for the foreseeable future be the most devastating setback in Boston sports history.
The Patriots in their own myriad ways still have not recovered. The aura of invincibility has given way to time, age and dumb, freakish bad luck. Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury ruined the first year following the loss to the Giants, Welker's has soured the second. The two are not mysteriously or spiritually related to losing the Big One (there is no Curse of David Tyree here), but are simply emblematic of just how special winning every game in a football season truly is, of how everything has to go right for that one rare moment in time, which for the players and their fans most likely won't happen again.
The second thought was of Jim Caldwell and the Indianapolis Colts, and how Welker's injury underscored even further just how poor a decision it was for the Colts to essentially toss two games that could have given them a perfect regular season. Maybe it is easy to be lulled into complacency because Peyton Manning never gets hurt (but neither had Brady before Opening Day 2008), or maybe they are beyond such mundane pursuits as perfection, but those players may never be that close again.
To be 14-0 with two weak opponents standing between your team and a perfect regular season, and to lose both games without even trying is the worst thing that can happen to a fan base short of the club moving under the cover of night (the Colts already covered that one 23 years ago when they slunk out of Baltimore). Caldwell and Co. seemed to act so cavalierly about being 14-0, as if the accomplishment contained no historical significance, as if it happens every day.
If Caldwell or any member of the Colts organization feels even the slightest sense of proof of their prudence because they will begin the playoffs healthy while one of their great rivals endured a devastating injury that might have been avoided, they shouldn't. Welker was injured in the first quarter, when the Colts' regulars had also been playing in the New York and Buffalo games. He was not playing in a reckless moment, say, up 31-10 with four minutes left in the game. As is customary with many ACL injuries, he wasn't even touched. And the game was not exactly meaningless. A No. 3 seed in the postseason means the Patriots could score two home games should events break properly. Welker suffered a terrible injury, but neither he nor the organization was negligent.
Less illustrative of the Colts' strategy, it was more appropriate to invoke the name of Bill Parcells after Welker's injury. It was Parcells who always said, "If you're going to get hurt, you're going to get hurt. You can't protect against it."
And that -- the inability to protect against the unknowable -- is why the perfect season is so special, so elusive and so important. It is why when a team has a chance to make history, you go for it. The Colts, even should they win the Super Bowl, did a huge disservice to their fan base.
As for the Patriots in the here and now, Welker's injury is a leveling one. Brady relies on Welker more than any quarterback -- with the exception of Colt McCoy with Jordan Shipley -- relies on his top receiver. The Patriots have been a two-man offense for much of the season and now Brady will have to return to his 2006 motif, before Randy Moss and Welker arrived and he was forced to distribute the ball to either unproven or secondary talents.
Brady is at his best when he is at his most democratic and Welker being driven to the sideline is the ultimate postseason wake-up call for Matt Slater, Benjamin Watson, Julian Edelman and Sam Aiken. Performances are needed.
And then, there is the X factor of the talented and mysterious Moss, who quite simply needs to give the Patriots a month of the greatest performances of his career. The Patriots still have their best receiver, and the beauty of Moss is that he can be all things to a quarterback: deep threat, slot receiver, possession receiver. He is that good.
Nevertheless, the universe has been off-balance ever since the Patriots failed to silence Mercury Morris that day in the desert, and Welker's absence only makes the postseason that much tougher to navigate for an uneven team that did not have a great margin for error in the first place.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published May 2010. He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.