INDIANAPOLIS - From the moment he arrived in New England, receiver Wes Welker has caused headaches for opposing defenses, leading the league in receptions three times in the five seasons he’s been a Patriot, including 122 this year.
He figures to be a popular target for quarterback Tom Brady in Sunday’s Super Bowl, much like the last time the Patriots and Giants met for the title. Welker matched a Super Bowl record with 11 catches four years ago.
Welker’s ability to make an impact was evident long before he came to the Patriots before the 2007 season in a trade with the Dolphins.
“The whole Wes Welker thing started when he was in Miami,’’ coach Bill Belichick said yesterday, after the team arrived to begin preparations for Super Bowl XLVI. “He was a very frustrating player to coach against because we really couldn’t handle him. He caught passes, he returned kicks, and then when [Olindo] Mare got hurt he went in and kicked extra points and field goals and kicked off against us, and that was annoying, too.
“We doubled him, we played him in a lot of different combinations. He was always the guy that we were trying to game plan for. When we had an opportunity to trade for him, we did that, and felt like he’d be a good addition to our team. And he has been.’’
But for how much longer? Welker is a free agent after the season, and based on his productivity figures to be in high demand. It sounds like there’s strong mutual interest in having him sign a new deal with New England.
“I plan on being back,’’ Welker said. “I’m not really too worried about that right now. I’m fully concentrated on this game and what we have to do, but I plan on being back.’’
Team owner Robert Kraft, asked how confident he was that a deal with Welker would get done, tried to keep the focus on the game, but did say, “I want it, and he wants it.’’
Gronkowski status quo
Tight end Rob Gronkowski walked off the plane still wearing the protective boot for his injured left ankle. He hasn’t practiced since Baltimore’s Bernard Pollard landed on Gronkowski’s ankle making a tackle in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots have listed him as questionable on the early injury report, and barring a setback, he’s expected to play.
Belichick would only offer the standard “day-to-day’’ when asked about Gronkowski’s availability. But Brady, appearing at halftime of last night’s Pro Bowl broadcast, said Gronkowski is feeling much better than he was a week ago. Welker, too, was optimistic.
“We’re going to have him out there,’’ Welker said. “He’s a tough kid. I don’t expect anything to change what we’re doing offensively. He’s always a force.’’
Fans make impression
Several of the players commented about how impressed they were that a crowd estimated at 25,000 showed up at Gillette Stadium to see the team off.
“That was huge. The fan support that we’ve had all year long has been tremendous,’’ Matthew Slater said. “It was really exciting to have the fans with us, sending us off. The way they supported us throughout the playoffs was so enjoyable. We’re thankful for all their support over the course of the season.
“For me, it really sank in today that we were going to the Super Bowl. The magnitude of that and the excitement of the fans; just to see them there supporting us in the cold weather was beautiful.’’
Party to a controversy?
Not surprisingly, a comment from the Patriots’ pep rally quickly made its way to New York, and likely will be blown out of proportion. Anything to stoke the rivalry between the cities, right?
“We’re going down there, and we’re going down there for one reason,’’ Brady said at Gillette Stadium. “We’re going to give it our best, and hopefully we have a lot more people at our party next weekend.’’
He wasn’t guaranteeing a victory, but he quickly was asked about the comment by a New York reporter once the team arrived in Indianapolis.
“Well, it was a pep rally,’’ Brady said. “People were pretty excited. Certainly players were excited. I know 25,000 fans who were there were excited as well.’’
Sticking with routine
The Giants will arrive today. But the Patriots felt it was important to get in earlier and have a regular week of practice starting today.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo agreed with that strategy.
“Just the continuity of coming down here and having that normal week is huge,’’ he said. “It’s worked the last couple of weeks. We’ve won 10 games in a row and that’s working for us. Hopefully it will continue to work.’’
Said offensive lineman Logan Mankins: “We’re creatures of habit, so we like to have everything going the same way every week, we don’t want any interruptions, so that’s very important to us, and I think Bill did a very good job of scheduling.’’
The Giants are scheduled to arrive at 2:15 p.m. today. By then, the Patriots will have been here for 21 hours.
Dirty little secret
After getting into two fights with Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora has called Light dirty and joked that he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of the two coming to blows again in the Super Bowl.
Asked about being labeled dirty, Mankins welcomed it.
“We don’t mind being called dirty or cheap or any of that stuff,’’ he said. “It’s a compliment to us.’’
Much of the Giants’ success against the Patriots has been because of the defensive line’s pass rush.
“We don’t like any defensive line, so they’re on the list,’’ Mankins said. “But I don’t think it’s any more for them than any other team.’’
His travel agent
When Slater was named to his first Pro Bowl last month, Belichick told him not to book any tickets to Hawaii.
“The first thing Coach Belichick told me when I made it,’’ Slater said, “was, ‘Well, you’re not playing in it.’ ’’
The Patriots arrived in Indianapolis the same day the league’s elite held the all-star game. Slater was one of eight Patriots tapped, but he said, “I was hoping all along that I wouldn’t play in it. Thankfully I’m not.
“It was an honor to be selected to the Pro Bowl and it means a lot being selected by your peers, the coaches, and the fans. Obviously, I’d rather be here with my team competing for the ultimate goal.’’
Pink suits him well
Linebacker Brandon Spikes broke out a pink suit for the trip. That’s right, pink. “That’s his lucky suit,’’ Mayo said. “He’s been wearing it since his [University of] Florida days and winning championships there. I told him to wear it. I like it. It’s his own personal style.’’ . . . The Patriots will be practicing at the Colts’ facility this week. “I can’t imagine they like that,’’ Welker said. “It’s kind of strange.’’Peter Abraham and Julian Benbow of the Globe Staff contributed. Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.