The New England Patriots have parted ways with an impressive lot of players during the Belichick Era.
Lawyer Milloy. Adam Vinatieri. Willie McGinest. Mike Vrabel. Richard Seymour. Randy Moss. Ty Law.
None of those guys ever made the Pats regret letting them go.
Wes Welker could.
Sunday afternoon, Welker's new team faces Welker's old team with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. He might not have as big a role with Denver as he did with New England — the Broncos receiver corps is ridiculously deep — but the Oklahoma native has made more money catches this season than ever before.
He had a career-high 10 touchdown catches during the regular season and added another in the playoffs last week.
Welker could be the difference Sunday.
After the Patriots said they didn't need Welker and Welker said he could find success elsewhere, it turned out both sides were right. New England just keeps rolling along, and Welker has caught a bunch of balls from Peyton Manning in Denver.
But Sunday's AFC Championship Game could provide the ultimate referendum on those offseason decisions.
Welcome to the Welker Bowl.
Oh, I'm sure plenty of folks will be more hung up on Brady vs. Manning, the Evil Empire vs. the Fighting Elways. But the Welker subplot is extremely juicy.
Not that you'd know as much by hearing what either side has had to say about the other.
“At this point, we're both pretty focused on what we need to do,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said on a Boston radio show earlier this week. “We'll save all the pleasantries for after the football season.”
Your turn, Wes.
“It's the AFC Championship Game; there's going to be plenty of juice,” Welker told media gathered in Denver earlier this week when asked about going against his former employer. “It doesn't get any bigger than that.”
Welker sounds like he still plays for New England. Stoic. Boring. Just like Bill Belichick likes it.
But behind that Pats' persona, Welker is raring to go. You know he is. He's a competitor, a grinder, a fighter, and you know that it ate at him like those massive lizards in his Old Spice commercial when the Patriots didn't re-sign him.
New England owner Robert Kraft has said that Welker's representatives botched the deal.
Welker's people have refuted that, saying they were given a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
Regardless, the Patriots ultimately decided they could live without Welker. And frankly, his replacements have done quite nicely. Slot receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola combined for 159 catches and 1,689 yards during the regular season. They added another nine for 161 yards last week in the Patriots' domination of the Colts.
But here's what's interesting — they only have eight touchdowns between them this season.
Welker has 11.
Could No. 12 or No. 13 come Sunday?
Seems entirely possible.
Welker could really stick it to the Pats like few other castoffs have. New England has sent several future hall of famers packing in the 14 seasons that Belichick has been rocking the gray hoodie; that kind of turnover is pretty natural for a top-shelf franchise like the Patriots.
Still, Lawyer Milloy never made a game-saving tackle to beat New England in the playoffs when he was in Buffalo or Atlanta or Seattle. And Randy Moss never made a game-changing catch against the Patriots during a January showdown while he was with the Titans or Vikings or Niners.
About as close as a big-time Patriot alum came to making New England regret letting him go was Vinatieri. He was 3 of 3 on field goals for the Colts when they beat the Patriots in the 2006 AFC title game. But his replacement, Stephen Gostkowski, was perfect, too, going 2 of 2 and definitely not costing New England the victory.
But Sunday, Welker has a rare chance to derail the Patriots from their title goals and really sock it to them.
Welker would love nothing more than punching his Super Bowl ticket while punching the Evil Empire in the gut.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.