Patriots leading receiver Wes Welker also led the NFL this season in receptions.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The question seemed to blind-side Tom Brady, and he reacted quickly as if he were zipping the ball to one of his three star receivers.
It’s rare, isn’t it, to have a tight end as the marquee player on offense?
“Well,” Brady told the reporter, “Wes is pretty good, too.”
WHAT: AFC Championship.
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Foxborough, Mass.
LINE: Patriots by 7 1/2.
AT STAKE: Winner will face winner of San Francisco-New York Giants in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 in Indy.
With Rob Gronkowski getting so much attention — from defensive players, highlight clips and the media — Wes Welker sometimes seems overshadowed in the New England Patriots’ outstanding offense.
In Saturday night’s 45-10 divisional playoff win over the Denver Broncos, the spotlight focused on Gronkowski and tight end Aaron Hernandez, each weighing at least 245 pounds. Welker weighs just 185.
Gronkowski caught 10 passes, three for touchdowns. Hernandez grabbed one scoring pass and gained 43 yards on a run out of the backfield. Welker did score on a 7-yard pass, but his 9.2 yards per catch were just fifth on the team.
The Baltimore Ravens defense, though, better not let its guard down against Welker in Sunday’s AFC championship game.
The speedy, elusive slot receiver led the NFL with 122 catches and 1,569 yards receiving this season when he was voted a first team All-Pro and chosen for his fourth straight Pro Bowl. His 554 receptions in his five seasons with New England are the most in the NFL in that span, 80 more than second-ranked Brandon Marshall.
But as this season progressed, the reputations of Gronkowski and Hernandez grew as they built on rookie years that gave a glimpse of their multiple talents when they combined for 87 receptions and 16 touchdowns. Their total this year: 169 catches and 24 scores.
Welker doesn’t think opponents are giving him more space to run his routes while they devote extra coverage to the tight ends.
“I’m just trying to do my job out there. Those two guys are phenomenal players and at some point the defense is going to realize how good they are and it’s definitely going to open up things for me and vice versa,” he said. “We all are together in this and all play together and all play our role.”
He certainly gets less attention than if he were the Patriots’ only dangerous receiving threat. Teams also must make sure that Deion Branch doesn’t get a step on his defender the way he did on his 61-yard touchdown catch against the Broncos.
It’s a difficult challenge, compounded by Brady’s extraordinary ability to read defenses and make split-second decisions on the best place to throw the ball.
“We don’t really know what the defense is going to do after the ball is snapped,” coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “Usually, we see multiple things. We see one coverage on one play and another coverage on another one and then a pressure somewhere along the line there.
“Who gets what and where the ball goes and whose opportunities those are is really a function on every play of how our pattern matches up with the defensive call they happen to have on. There’s really no way to know that. Sometimes you have a coverage indicator based on an alignment or film study or that kind of thing, but teams do a good job of disguising that.”
Welker caught a career-high 123 passes in 2009, but missed the Patriots’ wild-card game against Baltimore after suffering a major knee injury in the regular-season finale at Houston. So he wasn’t around to help them out of a 24-0 deficit after the first quarter. The Ravens won, 33-14.
He missed two regular-season games and most of another then, but hasn’t been sidelined this season.
“It’s always tough when your team is out there playing and you’re not able to, especially in the playoffs,” Welker said. “We had such a good year that year and (I’m) wanting to help my team and things like that. I’m just glad it’s behind me. I’m glad it’s over and I’m in the position I’m in to be able to play in this game.”
In the first half of this season, the Patriots went 5-3. Welker had 66 catches, Gronkowski 44 and Hernandez 33.
Since then, they’re 9-0 and the production has been strikingly similar — Welker with 62 catches, Gronkowski 56 and Hernandez 50.
“I think we’re pretty balanced between the receiver position and tight end position and being able to run the ball, complementing that with the play action pass,” Brady said. “I think it’s a matter of making sure all those guys are complementing each other.”
That’s the challenge the Ravens must overcome to pull an upset.
“Their offense has got weapons everywhere,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “It starts with the quarterback and it runs through the tight ends. They can run the ball. They’ve got guys on the outside that can play and get downfield. It’s the most explosive offense in football right now.”
And don’t forget about Welker.
Primarily an over-the-middle receiver, he can make the big play.
In the season opener, a 38-24 win over the Miami Dolphins, he took a pass on the left side from Brady and outran the defense for a 99-yard touchdown, the longest offensive play in Patriots history.
“I only threw it 25 yards. Wes did all the work,” Brady said after the game. “When I saw him break away, that was awesome.”