ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The awkward exodus from New England is well behind Wes Welker by now, leaving in its wake only judgments about whether the Patriots' struggle to retool their offense would have been quite so grinding had the receiver remained.
Maybe the Denver Broncos, who snapped up Welker last spring after the Pats offered an incentive-laden contract, would have reached the AFC Championship Game without him and his 10 touchdown receptions. Maybe the Patriots' presence in the championship game this season -- exactly where they were in the last two years with Welker -- offers proof that they were right to let him go, even if he wanted to stay, even if owner Robert Kraft wanted him to stay, even if Tom Brady reworked his contract so that New England could keep critical parts like his good friend Welker, and even if Welker's farewell was just the beginning of a series of upheavals among Brady's targets.
Maybe only the outcome of Sunday's game can crystallize whether Bill Belichick's decision last season to slowly diminish Welker's role -- an apparent early signal of the team's eventual plan -- and to move on without him was the best one for the Patriots.
Only one thing is already clear about the tangled relationship between Welker and the Patriots. He learned a lot from them. Like how to avoid giving the opponent any bulletin board material.
It turns out that the rhetorical high point of the wideout's career came, incongruously, when he played for Belichick. That footloose press conference Welker gave before the Patriots lost to the New York Jets in the 2010 divisional round -- full of thinly veiled references to feet intended to mock Rex Ryan's involvement with his wife in foot-fetish videos -- earned Belichick's ire and resulted in a brief benching.
But Welker apparently got the message, because this week, he has almost entirely avoided reflecting on the Patriots or how he feels about the season resting on another encounter with them. He said it was a toss-up between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to quarterback your team. He allowed that there were differences between how Belichick and Broncos coach John Fox operate, but he said both men are effective. He would not say how he felt about facing the Patriots with so much on the line.
The only peek at how odd a situation this must be for Welker came when he said he was happy he had done all the reminiscing about the Patriots during the regular season, before the Broncos lost to them in Foxborough.
"I think our media guys had me do like four sit-downs, different media stuff," Welker said. "I'm not throwing anybody under the bus or anything. There was just a lot of stuff going on during that week. I'm glad to have all that stuff over with and really just focus on the game and get ready for it."
If Welker still has mixed emotions about the Patriots, it would not be surprising. He remains close to some of his former teammates; he and former Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light are holding a charity raffle this week. And it is hard to imagine that, as Brady cycled through inexperienced receivers, then injured ones, he did not wish he still had Welker, one of his most trusted pass-catchers. Danny Amendola, whom the Patriots targeted as soon as negotiations with Welker bogged down, was injured for part of the season and finished with 54 receptions for 633 yards and two touchdowns -- all less than half the totals Welker had for New England in 2012. But Julian Edelman, a longtime Belichick project, nearly duplicated Welker's output. And the Patriots are here because they have, at some points in the season, eschewed the passing attack entirely, leaning on defense first, and then a throwback power running game.
Welker learned a hard lesson last spring, one that is worth remembering when watching the Patriots this Sunday: One of Belichick's particular gifts is to be able to look coldly at his roster -- free of sentiment -- and find parts to replace everywhere. Welker was cast into the same pile as safety Lawyer Milloy and defensive lineman Richard Seymour, beloved Patriots whose departures were just as stunning. Whether or not New England wins Sunday, Belichick almost certainly will do it again this offseason, trying to make his roster younger and less expensive -- and, inevitably, still remarkably competitive.
When Denver landed Welker, Fox said Wednesday, even people from the Patriots organization told the coach that his staff would love working with the receiver. Welker was voted a captain -- an indicator, Fox said, of how the wideout's peers view him. Julius Thomas, the young tight end who has emerged as one of Manning's preferred targets, said he is learning from Welker because, despite their very different builds, they largely play in the same spots on the field.
"What veterans do, they will see things faster," Thomas said. "Having Wes coming to the sideline or in the huddle, to bounce things off of, helps me."
Perhaps most critically is how Welker helps Peyton Manning. While Welker has not logged a 100-yard receiving game this season, his 10 touchdowns are a career high. And consider this: In their first 13 regular-season games, when Welker was in the lineup, the Broncos converted 48.2 percent of their third-down attempts. In their final three games of the regular season -- which Welker missed with a concussion -- the Broncos converted just 37.1 percent.
In describing Welker, Manning sounds like he is talking about a receiving version of himself.
"He's a gym rat," Manning said. "He loves the game, loves to work after practice, loves to talk in meetings about routes that he thinks might have a chance to get open. He's very knowledgeable of defenses and how teams have played him in the past, whether they've double-covered him or whatever it may be."
The Patriots almost completely shut down Welker in Week 12. Welker learned the hard way about the Patriot Way in the spring. How he deals with an even more challenging aspect of the way the Patriots operate Sunday might determine whether his past or present team goes to the Super Bowl.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.