DENVER -- Get ready, because it's going to get obnoxious. You're in for days and days of pick plays -- watching them, talking about them, arguing about them in advance of Super Bowl XLVIII. In an AFC Championship Game featuring a staff of nobody receiving targets on New England's end and an All-Star crew in Denver's stable, perhaps the most important play by any receiver was made away from the ball.
During the first drive of the second quarter, with the game in a 3-0 stalemate, the Broncos ran Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker on crossing routes. Welker, an offseason free-agent signee who spent the bulk of his career in New England, slammed into top Patriots corner Aqib Talib, who suffered a game-ending injury on the play. No flags were thrown, and Manning went on to pass for 289 of his 400 yards in the final three quarters. He completed passes to eight receivers in a 26-16 win with New England's No. 1 corner watching from the sideline.
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It's not a play New England coach Bill Belichick is likely to forget in the near future.
"As it turned out," he said, "that was a key in the game."
But was it legal?
"I'll have to take a look at it on the film," Belichick said.
Such controversial "pick plays" or "rub routes" have been the subject of scrutiny since these teams met in Week 12. Over at TheMMQB.com, Greg Bedard counted 12 such plays in the final three quarters of that Patriots victory, all run with the goal of an offensive player muddling the pursuit of the defensive player chasing the intended receiver. Both New England's Danny Amendola, the least of the nobodies, and the Broncos' Eric Decker were flagged for pass interference on such plays in Week 12.
Whether Welker should have been flagged for the hit was a matter of debate on Twitter. Bills safety Jim Leonhard said Welker was on a "suicide mission," and expressed disgust with the play: "Unreal pick he set, not sure how not a flag."
Former Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira said the hit was not a foul, because the ball touched the receiver's hands "about the same time" as Welker made contact with Talib, which would make the hit a standard block, and not pass interference.
Welker clarified he was not trying to injure or even hit Talib.
"It was one of those plays where it's kind of a rough play and I was trying to get him to go over the top, and I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided," Welker said. "It wasn't a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that. I hope he's OK. He's a great player and a big part of their defense."
There was no word on Talib's status as the Patriots packed up for the season. Without him, New England's already limping defense (missing starters Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo) had little answer for Thomas, who led all receivers with 134 yards and a touchdown by day's end. Getting Talib off Thomas' back with crossing routes was part of the game plan from the beginning, according to Manning, who noted the Broncos might have had difficulty with New England if they attempted to run straight up and down the field.
Rub routes will likely stay on the menu as Denver faces the top-ranked Seahawks' pass defense, which has remained stout late this season despite losing corners Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond to suspensions. And whether the Broncos can continue to run it with impunity could factor heavily in Manning's quest for a second title.
Just don't expect Seahawks corner Richard Sherman, or anybody else, to keep quiet about it.