Julian Edelman looked like a guy who could use some time off.
He had just picked up a first down on a third-and-two play in the third quarter and taken a hard hit over the middle from Broncos linebacker Corey Nelson. Edelman's helmet smashed into Nelson's chest, and he was slow to get up after the play. When Edelman got to his feet, he turned to the Patriots sideline and waved as if to inform coaches he needed a breather.
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As it turned out, Edelman missed one snap. He dropped the next target that was sent his way, but moments later he came through with one of the most critical third-down conversions of the game.
On third-and-six from the Broncos 45-yard line, he saw Tom Brady scrambling and looked for a soft spot in the defense. Eyeing Edelman, Brady floated a pass just out of reach of safety Darian Stewart and into the receiver's arms for a 17-yard gain and a fresh set of downs.
The play put the Patriots in field-goal range, helped them go up two scores, 13-3, and highlighted Edelman's knack for executing in critical moments -- despite whatever physical ailments he's dealing with.
There's a tightrope-walk element to Edelman's game in that he is arguably the second-most important offensive player on the team behind Brady, yet he finds himself in harm's way on a regular basis. That trend continued Sunday as he absorbed hits while catching six passes on 12 targets for 75 yards. He also brought back three punts for 21 yards, returning to that role with Cyrus Jones scratched from the lineup before the game.
Edelman found himself taking a particularly hard shot to end one return and let out a particularly loud expletive in response, which came through loud and clear on the CBS broadcast.
He said after the game that he enjoyed being more involved in the kicking game, comparing it to a video game where the hero regularly finds his insides splattered on the highway.
"It was good," Edelman said. "I had fun. Those are fun plays. It's like Frogger. Just a bunch of bullets going everywhere. Those are the fun plays . . . It was good to get back there and also make smart decisions."
As important as he is to the offense, and now the kicking game, it appears as though the Patriots would like to get Edelman a break whenever possible. In Denver, he played fewer snaps than both Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell for the third consecutive week, but when he's on the field he's usually the center of attention.
In the last five games -- during which Rob Gronkowski played just seven snaps against the Jets -- Edelman has a whopping 67 targets to lead the team.
One has to wonder if the Patriots will have the opportunity to rest Edelman for the final two games of the regular season. But with homefield throughout the playoffs up for grabs, he'll likely continue to serve as Brady's security blanket and a focal point of Josh McDaniels' attack.
The coaching staff has little choice but to continue to use Edelman as often as it does, but it may do so with its collective heart in its throat, hoping he doesn't end up feeling like a small amphibian on the wrong end of a collision with an 18-wheeler.