FOXBOROUGH — The focus, as you’d expect, is almost entirely on the San Francisco 49ers, yet another matchup for the Patriots that the NFL and its television partners decided would be worthy of a prime-time, nationally televised slot.
So if you’re Patriots receiver Wes Welker, you’d rather not talk about anything else, really, despite there being some other football-related topics of interest. His future with the Patriots, being one. Or his impending assault on the league record book, which wouldn’t be the first time. Or his season in general, which began with the possibility of a holdout, turned to Welker possibly being squeezed out, yet has taken on the familiar look and feel of every other year the slot receiver has spent in Foxborough.
He catches pass after pass after pass, running and sliding and diving his way through defenses and into the hearts of Patriots fans, the perfect piece to an offense that everyone probably takes for granted.
Well, not everyone.
“There’s nothing more important in Wes’s life than being a football player and thinking about football and making the big play and running the right route and getting open when it’s most important,” Tom Brady said. “That’s what quarterbacks dream about, too: Having receivers that do that.
“Wes is everything you look for in his ability, not only when he catches the ball to be an important part of the play, but also on plays when other guys are supposed to get the ball. He busts his butt harder than anybody to make sure he’s doing his job to clear out on a certain route or to take some coverage with him so another guy can get the ball.”
Often times, though, the guy getting the ball is Welker.
Brady threw 40 passes in a recent win against the Dolphins; 18 went to the short, shifty receiver acquired in a 2007 trade from the Dolphins, who deemed him to be expendable.
For the Patriots, Welker since then has been invaluable.
He’s on pace to catch 117 passes in the regular season, which would be his third-highest total as a Patriot. That would also be the third-highest single-season total in team history, since Troy Brown — who had 101 receptions in 2001 — is the only other Patriot to ever catch at least 100 passes in a season. Welker has done it four times.
Through 13 games, Welker has 95 receptions, which ranks third in the league. With five more — those could come Sunday night, against a stout San Francisco defense — he’ll become the first player in NFL history with five 100-catch seasons. Only Welker, Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice, and Brandon Marshall (who joined the club on Sunday) have four seasons of at least 100 receptions.
Odds are good, then, that Welker is about to stand alone. Not that he’s real comfortable or expansive in discussing it.
“It won’t mean anything if we don’t win the game,” Welker said after Thursday’s practice. “My focus is on the 49ers, trying to go out there and execute to the best of my ability and try to help us win this game.”
Welker’s sixth season with the Patriots was hardly a given, after the team used the franchise tag on him following last season’s loss in the Super Bowl. Welker, who completed the five-year, $18 million contract he signed after being traded from Miami, spent weeks trying to figure out if he should sign the guaranteed one-year deal of $9.5 million, or hold out in an attempt to negotiate a longer-term extension.
He signed the tender May 15, pledging his commitment to the team but losing any leverage he may have had while discussing a longer contract. The sides did not come to an agreement prior to the deadline, leaving Welker with a hefty raise for this season, but some unknowns beyond it.
His play this year has certainly confirmed how valuable he is, and has been, to the Patriots’ offense, but the early part of the season was spent trying to figure out if Welker’s role had changed because of a reduced number of snaps he was on the field for. Three catches (for just 14 yards) in the season opener was followed by five grabs in Week 2, but an ankle injury to tight end Aaron Hernandez at that time coincided with Welker relocating his Welker-like numbers.
The Week 3 win at Baltimore began a torrid four-game stretch for Welker: eight catches for 142 yards against the Ravens; nine grabs for 129 yards against the Bills; 13 balls for 104 yards against Denver; and 10 receptions for 138 yards at Seattle. Two of his four touchdowns on the season also came in that span.
The recognizable personal numbers were back, but Welker professed not to pay much attention.
“Maybe after the season. You don’t have time to do that right now,” he said. “I just try to live in the here and now and worry about what I’ve got to do to get better.”
He’s been plenty good since joining the Patriots, catching more passes than anybody in the NFL, becoming the franchise’s career receptions leader, and setting multiple records along the way: single-game receiving yardage (217), single-season receiving yardage, and almost every mark when it comes to the number of passes he’s caught.
Numbers aside, something else stands out about Welker, Brady said.
“What makes Wes really special is his selflessness as a player,” Brady said. “But the ball always seems to find a way to him.”
Same as it ever was, at least for Welker and the Patriots. They’ve enjoyed a very successful partnership, season after season. Not that he’d compare this one with any other.
“I don’t really think about that at all,” Welker said. “We’re in a good position right now, so everything I’ve got is going into this season and this week’s opponent, so that means San Francisco.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.