The biggest "controversy" of the 2012 football season remained unresolved Sunday night.
In fact, advocates on either side of the conspiracy theory regarding Wes Welker's future with the Patriots could probably find evidence to support their claims, either pro or con, in the early returns.
At halftime of the Patriots' 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Welker had been targeted five times by Tom Brady, and he caught three passes.
Julian Edelman, meanwhile, had been targeted seven times and caught four.
The biggest difference? Edelman had 28 yards to his credit. Welker had 96.
The Welkerites will claim that their favorite player made the most of his opportunities. The Edelmaniacs will claim that theirs has clearly become the first choice for Brady. And the debate will go on and on - probably for the entire course of the season.
The truth, as always, will rest somewhere in the middle.
If you wonder why Bill Belichick looks exasperated at some - or most - of his press conferences, it's because he probably believes that most of the people covering the Patriots should be able by now to figure out at least some of his motives. One that has been constant since the day he took over the team in 2000 is that he plays the players he believes will give him the best chance to win a game. And sometimes, his lineups won't look like fans or writers think they should look because he has different players on the field to meet the specific needs of the game plan.
So Welker did not start Sunday night's game. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui did. Brady threw the ball to Hoomanawanui, in fact, before he threw it to Gronkowski. Should we be led to believe that Gronkowski is being phased out because he's not living up to his new, high-salaried contract in favor of the youngster from Illinois with the unpronounceable last name?
No, of course not.
Edelman suffered an injury late in the first half and sat out the second with a heavy bandage on his left hand, so Welker won this "battle" by default. He finished with eight catches for 142 yards, which is certainly what we've come to expect from a player that has caught more passes than anyone else in the NFL since 2007. Edelman, meanwhile, topped out at four catches and 28 yards.
And it could be argued that there were no "winners" on the Patriots' side of the field after Baltimore's Joe Flacco drove his team eight plays and 70 yards down to the Patriots' 9 (with the help of a 27-yard interference penalty against Devin McCourty) for Justin Tucker to kick a 27-yard field goal at time expired. Who caught more passes tends to seem irrelevant when your team has fallen to 1-2 after leading for most of the second half.
Once the reasons for the defeat are sorted out, a greater truth will probably emerge from the knowledge gained - most importantly, a reminder that the most successful teams fielded by the Patriots in their dynastic days involved as many individuals as possible in the offensive attack. There would be times when as many as 10 names might appear under the receiving category, all of them making significant contributions in the course of a game.
It does appear that Edelman had gained some ground in training camp. It's not clear if Welker lost ground because of his contractual conflict (which was resolved to an acceptable degree when he signed his $9.5 million "franchise player" tender), or because of his play in practice, or if there were other factors afoot that will probably remain only the stuff of speculation.
But a lot of that probably has nothing at all to do what happens in a game. The Patriots have attempted to return to the spread-it-around philosophy that was scrapped in 2007 when Randy Moss and Welker were laying waste to the competition. The tight ends play a much larger role now, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seems determined to bring the run back to the playbook. Brandon Lloyd's touches are steadily growing in number (he had nine catches for 108 yards, his first time over 100 yards as a Patriot), old friend Deion Branch actually caught a few passes Sunday night, and they even unleashed Kellen Winslow in the third quarter.
As long as there are open receivers for Brady to find, he will find them. And he probably won't be thinking about what name is on the back of the jersey of the guy who's running downfield with one of his passes.
What that means beyond this year is unclear, however. Belichick assigns "value" to each of his players, and the contracts he offers them reflect his estimation of what that player's future contributions might be, and not what he did in the past.
So Welker could very well be on his way elsewhere next year, when the "franchise" tender would approach $12 million. But in the meantime, expect Belichick and Brady to get every ounce of value out of Welker's current contract.