FOXBOROUGH — Not that big? Listed at 5 feet 9 inches and 185 pounds, Wes Welker would probably be the first to concede that point.
But Welker would probably engage Wade Phillips in a healthy debate after the Texans defensive coordinator described the Patriots receiver last week as “not that big or a real athletic guy.’’
“Wes, his stats show what type of player he is,’’ said tight end Aaron Hernandez. “He’s hard to stop and he’s almost uncoverable.’’
Phillips no doubt left Gillette Stadium muttering similar thoughts after Welker hauled in a team-high eight passes — all of them huge — for 131 yards in Sunday’s 41-28 AFC divisional playoff victory over the Texans.
Asked if he was shocked by Phillips’s description, Welker replied, “I’m not really too worried about that. It’s all a lot of noise. I just try to go out there and do my job to the best of my ability.’’
When tight end Rob Gronkowski left in the first quarter after reinjuring his surgically-repaired left forearm — which will require season-ending surgery — Welker’s presence in Tom Brady’s offensive tool kit loomed large.
“It’s unfortunate, but guys have to step up,’’ Welker said of Gronkowski’s injury. “Guys have to come out and make plays and make up for his absence.’’
The tough-as-nails Welker did his part Sunday, helping fill the void. Welker’s yardage total, 120 of which came in the first half, represented a postseason high and set a franchise postseason record, and helped propel the second-seeded Patriots to a rematch against the fourth-seeded Ravens in the AFC Championship game.
“It’s one step forward in the right direction,’’ Welker said. “It’s one thing that we’ve taken care of and now it’s on to the AFC Championship and get ready for that.’’
Welker’s value to the offense is obvious — even moreso with Gronkowski sidelined.
“The kid — I mean, the man — the man is such a unique guy,’’ said Matthew Slater. “It’s been a pleasure playing with him these last five years. The thing that always jumps out about Wes to me is the kind of professional he is, the way he approaches his craft, the way he works.
“The guy works like there’s no tomorrow and it’s really unbelievable. I think that’s what inspires guys around him. If this guy, who’s catching 100 balls every year, is working like this then we’ve got to make sure we’re working like that.
“His toughness, his clutch catches, you could go on and on about him. I’m just glad I’m on the team with him.’’
Welker ran all the routes. He fearlessly went over the middle, time and again absorbing heavy contact. He was targeted on the quick screens.
But his biggest catch came on a 47-yard gain down the sideline in the second quarter that gave the Patriots a first-and-goal, setting up Brady’s 8-yard TD toss to Shane Vereen for a 17-3 lead.
It was Welker’s 59th career postseason reception, surpassing the franchise record held by Troy Brown.
“It was a great catch,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “Wes is a tremendous receiver, a great competitor. Again, we felt like at times there was a good matchup with him in the slot. He did a good job in there.’’
If that wasn’t enough, Welker added to his heavy workload by fielding punts.
“He’s doing it all,’’ said Slater, a special teams cocaptain. “He’s a true football player, no doubt. He played in a game once [against the Patriots] where he even kicked an extra point.
“We lean on him heavy, but he comes up big every time. I’m just happy to be his teammate.’’
So when Phillips labeled Welker as “not that big or a real athletic guy” it came as an astounding piece of news to his teammates.
“All I know,’’ said linebacker Jerod Mayo, “is that Wes Welker [plays hard] every week.’’