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Reiss: Home Field Gives Patriots A Slight Edge02:18
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New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker makes his 123rd catch of the season on Jan. 3 in Houston. Welker injured his knee on the play. (AP)
New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker makes his 123rd catch of the season on Jan. 3 in Houston. Welker injured his knee on the play. (AP)

The New England Patriots open their playoff run on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough with a wild-card game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Of course, a main storyline actually began last weekend, as the team and league leader in receptions, Wes Welker, badly injured his left knee in the first quarter of the regular season finale.

"I think they can [recover] in this game, but Wes Welker is such a special player, and not just for the production" said Mike Reiss, of ESPNBoston.com, in an interview with WBUR's Bob Oakes. "He's the heart and soul of this offense. He's the player that takes big hits and gets back up. The team really rallies around a player like that, so I think losing such a spark plug, they'll need everyone to raise their level of play to account for that."

Certainly, the loss of the reliable Welker will affect the NFL's third-ranked passing offense, and Welker's receiving counterpart, Randy Moss, should expect tighter coverage his way.

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(AP)
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"The Ravens are a very confident team, and the Patriots are going to have to do things the Ravens aren't expecting, because clearly the plan has become a bit easier," Reiss said. "They can now focus more of their attention on Moss, whereas before some of that attention would go to Welker."

More attention also turns to Julian Edelman, the Patriots rookie who mimics Welker in terms of physique and playing style. After Welker's injury on Sunday, Edelman set career highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (103).

"I have been very impressed with this rookie out of little Kent State," Reiss said of the 232nd player selected in the 2009 NFL draft. "He's been one of the surprise players for the Patriots this year."

Still, Reiss noted the importance of the quarterback-receiver relationship, which Edelman predictably lacks compared to Welker.

The injury news notwithstanding, Reiss pointed to other factors that should sustain the Patriots in their first playoff game since their heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl 42 in February 2008. Specifically, Reiss mentioned quarterback Tom Brady — "a good start," quipped the reporter — and Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots went 8-0 in the regular season.

The Ravens, for their part, are looking for retribution, as they were one of the teams to lose to the Patriots at Foxborough this year. Following the Oct. 4 loss, a number of Baltimore players voiced their dissatisfaction with the game's officials, though Reiss indicated that the Ravens were the third-most penalized team in the NFL this year.

That bad blood could lead to a white-knuckle affair.

"I think this will be a very close game — within a field goal," Reiss said, "and I actually wouldn't be surprised if it goes either way. But until the Patriots lose a game at home this year, where they've been pretty good, I tend to lean towards them."

Reiss' close-game prediction does indeed follow recent history. Patriots fans will remember that the Ravens nearly ruined the Patriots perfect regular season in 2007 before the team edged out a 27-24 victory on Dec. 3.

This story was updated to reflect that the Dec. 3, 2007 game did not take place in Foxborough.

This program aired on January 8, 2010.

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