Peyton Manning is a villain in the story of the Belichick-era New England Patriots. (Or hero, depending on which side of the emotional fence that surrounds Boston you happen to be peeking over.) After bouncing repeatedly off the wall that was the early-2000s Patriots, and falling behind early in the 2006 AFC Championship Game against what looked like another Super Bowl-caliber Pats team, he achieved one of the better comebacks in NFL history and inflicted one of the signature narrow defeats (the others being their two losses to the other Manning’s Giants) that have kept the Pats ring-less since 2004.
What changed that year? Well, Manning reached his apex as a passer, and the Marvin Harrison-Reggie Wayne-Dallas Clark trio was clicking, and Human ICBM Bob Sanders actually played through the entire playoffs without injuring himself. You know, football stuff. But there was something else. The Colts had subsumed a piece of New England. They’d eaten its flesh to make themselves stronger.
They’d signed Adam Vinatieri.
Vinatieri, Mr. Clutch, The Foot That Launched A Thousand “Wicked!”s, played an integral role in each of the Patriots’ three Super Bowl victories, constantly stepping up and hitting field goals in situations so high-pressured they’d bodily force mere mortals back into their mothers’ wombs. Vinatieri is not a mere mortal, and he proved that by joining the Colts and immediately helping them to a championship.
In 2013, seven years later, some things haven’t changed: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are two of the top quarterbacks in football; Bill Belichick seems incapable of putting together a sub-AFC-Championship-caliber team; Andy Reid looks like a cup of Jello that grew a mustache. And now, we have a personnel change that seems remarkably similar to the one that took place between 2005 and 2006: the Patriots have let a core member of the squad walk away, and Peyton Manning’s camp has lured him in.
This time, it’s Wes Welker, who signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Broncos after the Patriots let him go for money reasons following a season under the franchise tag, just like they did Vinatieri. As a football move, it’s very sound, even a coup — the Patriots immediately replaced Welker with Danny Amendola, a younger iteration of Welker’s shifty-white-slot-receiver-Caucasian act who, if he stays healthy, could be a definite 1,000-yard guy for Tom Brady.
The Patriots had no control over whether Welker signed somewhere symbolically insulting, but they might have worried about what a receiver of his caliber could do on a main AFC rival. Denver has arguably the best starting-receiver tandem in the league in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker; Football Outsiders had the two as their third- and fourth-best receivers in the NFL last season, though catching passes from Peyton Manning probably gives them a bit of a bump. Welker will replace Brandon Stokley as the team’s third receiver, and though Stokley actually rated quite well by advanced metrics — he was Football Outsiders’ 20th-best WR, one spot behind Welker — he had the advantage of playing against defenses worried about Thomas and Decker. Welker’s coming from an environment in which he was the number-one option, particularly during the portions of the season where Rob Gronkowski was injured; playing with Decker and Thomas will be like exchanging two paper airplanes for an F-22 and a pterodactyl.
If Wes Welker performs at something near the level he did last year — reasonable to expect, given that he’ll be 32 during the season, which is getting up there but still not ancient for a receiver; also, the dude caught 118 passes last year — he’ll only make an elite offensive squad even better. And Manning’s guys, who trail only the Patriots in Vegas’ odds to make this season’s Super Bowl, will likely have to go through Tom Brady and co. to make it — just like in 2006. If the Broncos do win a championship at this year at the expense of the Patriots, it’ll cement something that would have been insane to say when the Pats sealed up their third title season in four years back in February 2005: the forces of the football universe are hell-bent on beating New England.