DENVER (AP) - Wes Welker isn’t looking back at his unhappy homecoming in Foxborough in November or his six seasons with Tom Brady in New England as he prepares for the Patriots’ visit to Denver next Sunday.
Welker had six receptions in his return from a concussion that had sidelined him for a month, and he wore an oversized safety helmet that drew comparisons to Dark Helmet from “Spaceballs” and The Great Gazoo from the Flintstones.
“I’ve been practicing with it the last few weeks, so I got used to it,” Welker said. “It does kind of look like the Jetsons out there.”
Welker’s return helped the Broncos flip their time-of-possession deficit against the Chargers, who had held the ball for more than 38 minutes in both of their regular season meetings, including a 27-20 win in Denver in December.
The Broncos (14-3) will host the Patriots (13-4), who beat them 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 24 in New England.
Welker was trying to make a fair catch of a punt in the wind but didn’t call off his blockers in time and the ball hit teammate Tony Carter. The Patriots recovered and kicked the game-winning field goal.
The Patriots beat Indianapolis 43-22 to advance to their third straight conference championship. The Broncos are back for the first time in eight years.
Five things that helped the Broncos avoid another Mile High meltdown like their crushing loss to Baltimore in last year’s playoffs:
THIRD-DOWN THEATRICS: The last time these teams played, the Chargers converted 6 of 12 third downs and controlled the clock for 38 minutes while the Broncos sorely missed Welker and were just 2 for 9 on third downs.
This time, Denver was 9 for 13 - the 69 percent the highest of any team in this year’s postseason - and the Chargers were just 4 of 12.
The Broncos’ biggest conversions were the three they had on their final drive, including a 21-yard catch by Julius Thomas on third-and-17 from their own 20, which allowed them to salt away the win. That’s something they weren’t able to do in their crushing 38-35 loss in double-overtime to the Ravens exactly a year earlier.
“I felt like that game last year forced us to address those types of situations all season long,” Manning said. “We’ve worked on it in training camp, we’ve worked on it in the season. … It was nice that all that hard work paid off for us.”
MANNING’S MAGIC: Manning drew five different defenders into committing neutral zone infractions with a cadence that had the Chargers flustered.
“They were doing a hard count, but that’s not an excuse for us jumping offside,” San Diego linebacker Melvin Ingram said. “We need to be more disciplined than that.”