ENGLEWOOD — The NFL's officiating chief has cleared Broncos receiver Wes Welker of any wrongdoing for his hit that knocked Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib out of Sunday's AFC Championship.
"It was a legal hit," Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino said on the NFL Network on Wednesday night.
On Monday, New England coach Bill Belichick blasted Welker for the hit, calling it "one of the worst plays" he'd seen in nearly four decades of coaching. Without mentioning his former player by name, Belichick said it "was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib, no attempt to get open." He added, "I'll let the league handle the discipline on that play."
There will be no discipline for Welker; Blandino said there was simply no infraction of the rules.
Welker, coming from the right, collided with Talib, who was running from the left to stay with his receiver, a split-second before Peyton Manning's pass went off the hands of receiver Demaryius Thomas a few yards away in the first quarter Sunday. No flag was thrown.
Talib left the game with a knee injury and didn't return, and Manning threw for 400 yards in Denver's 26-16 win that sent the top-seeded Broncos to the Super Bowl.
"The first potential foul would be for offensive pass interference; a receiver can't block downfield before the ball is touched, so the timing is important," Blandino said on his weekly appearance on the NFL Network. He noted that as "contact occurs, the ball is touched almost simultaneously. We don't have a foul for pass interference."
"The other thing, is it unnecessary roughness? Under the current rules it isn't," Blandino said. "It's not late; Talib wasn't out of the play."
Given that an injury occurred, Blandino said he expects the league's competition committee to examine the play in the offseason "and determine if there needs to be a change. But under the current rules, this is a legal play."
Welker, who had a cool relationship with Belichick before leaving New England as a free agent last offseason, hasn't been available for comment this week as the Broncos won't practice until Thursday.
But after the game, Welker said, "it was one of those plays where it's kind of a rub play and I was trying to get him to go over the top, and I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided. ... It wasn't a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that."
Broncos coach John Fox responded to Belichick's stinging criticism on Monday by saying Welker is a "a great player, high integrity. I can say that we were not doing anything with intent."
At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Welker is 4 inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Talib. He's also wearing a special helmet to guard against further head injury after missing the final month of the season with his second concussion. He's also never been known as a dirty player.
Patriots safety Steve Gregory said he didn't think Welker would deliberately try to hurt a player, saying, "I don't think anybody plays that way, especially at this level of football with two great football teams in the Broncos and ourselves."
Blandino said he has spoken with Belichick this week about the play "and obviously there is a difference of opinion there and something that we'll continue to look at during the offseason."
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