OWINGS MILLS – The conversation all week has rarely strayed from an enthusiastic discourse on the New England Patriots’ ultra-productive tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
When the moment has really gotten crucial for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady over the years, though, he has consistently relied upon one man the most: clutch wide receiver Wes Welker.
It’s Welker who caught 122 passes for a career-high 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns this season for the top-seeded Patriots. He became the second player in NFL history to reach the 120-catch milestone, joining Cris Carter.
He caught 22 more passes this season than the next wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons standout Roddy White.
“He’s a safety net for Brady, it’s his reliable guy,” Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He gets open. He’s quick as a cat. He’s got feet like a shore bird. They move him around out of the backfield. He’s all over the place.
“We’ve got to identify where he’s at and what the situation is, what the down and distance is. Brady has got a certain comfort zone with him. He’s his go-to-guy, among others, but he makes that thing go.”
It’s Welker, a shifty, sure-handed and dangerous presence who has caught more passes than any NFL receiver in the past five years, piling up 554 catches for 6,105 yards and 31 touchdowns.
And Welker has 40 receptions in just five career playoff games.
During Sunday’s AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium against the Patriots’ second-ranked offense, the Ravens’ third-ranked defense, Pagano will likely shift cornerback Lardarius Webb inside to guard Welker in the slot in the nickel package.
“Welker’s a great wide receiver, man,” Webb said. “He’s always hustling. He’s just a complete wide receiver. Size doesn’t matter, if you want to look at me.”
At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Welker is roughly the same size as Webb.
Webb is a speedy 5-10, 182-pounder.
It should be an interesting matchup.
“I enjoy whatever,” Webb said. “If I’m inside, outside, safety, it doesn’t matter. I enjoy my matchups. It gets easier once you go inside. You have more help inside. You get more help surrounding you. You have more bodies in the area. You’ve got Ed Reed in his spot.”
Webb had a breakthrough season, intercepting a career-high five passes wand leading the Ravens with 20 pass deflections.
He tied a franchise postseason record with two interceptions during the Ravens’ 20-13 AFC divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans.
Webb’s progress hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He’s played both inside and outside for them,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They’ve bumped him inside into the nickel position when they brought Jimmy Smith into the game. They’ve been doing that more recently. Webb is a real good athlete. He’s fast, he’s quick, he’s a tough kid, not the biggest guy, but he’s strong and he tackles well.
“He definitely will throw his body around in there and be physical, which you don’t see from every corner. He’s got good ball skills, punt return guy obviously has good hands and has real good ball skills. He’s made some real good plays on the ball down the field. He’s got real good quickness and can run.”
Webb also forced one fumble and registered a sack with a career-high 68 tackles.
“Webb is a huge asset to this team regardless of where he’s playing,” Reed said. “He’s just a guy to reckon with.”
So is Welker, though.
Welker broke Randy Moss’ franchise record for receiving yards this season by 76 yards.
Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 14 receptions, 200 yards and four touchdowns during the Patriots’ 45-10 AFC divisional playoff win over the Denver Broncos.
However, Welker remains a pivotal figure in the Patriots’ offense.
“I’m just trying to do my job out there,” Welker told New England reporters. “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 up for me and vice versa.”
The Ravens have contained Welker in the past, limiting him to no more than 60 receiving yards in a single game and have never surrendered a touchdown to him.
And they have no intentions of altering that track record Sunday as they’re one win away from a Super Bowl berth.
“We can’t focus on one particular player, because Brady doesn’t,” Reed said. “Brady throws it to everybody.”