FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – For 10 years, it was billed as Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady.
But now, with Manning halfway through his first season in Denver, Sunday’s showdown between the Indianapolis Colts (6-3) and New England Patriots (6-3) is being hyped for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck’s first game against a three-time Super Bowl MVP.
Perhaps the spotlight should be on receivers Reggie Wayne and Wes Welker, though, as two of the most dynamic and dangerous weapons in the league continue surging seasons.
The quiet, crafty and versatile veterans once again rank atop the NFL this year. Wayne leads all receivers with 69 receptions and is second to Detroit’s Calvin Johnson with 931 yards. Welker, meanwhile, is tied for third with 66 receptions and is seventh with 810 yards.
The fact that they’re both at the head of the class shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. After all, they’ve been doing it for years.
Since Welker arrived in New England in 2007, he has the most receptions (620) and fourth-most yards (6,915) in the league, while Wayne, drafted by Indianapolis in 2001, trails only Atlanta’s Roddy White in yards (7,165), and is tied with Chicago’s Brandon Marshall for No. 2 in receptions (541) during that same span.
Wayne, who had seven straight 1,000-yard seasons between 2004-10, also has scored 39 touchdowns in that time frame to Welker’s 33.
“I’m only nine years (in) right now. It’s hard to keep on playing well. And he’s at 12! And still playing really well,” Welker said of Wayne. “He’s at the top of the league in everything and playing like the best receiver in the league right now. You definitely have an appreciation for it.”
Luck certainly does.
As if replacing the only four-time MVP in league history wasn’t tough enough, imagine how difficult Luck’s transition from college could have been without a dependable target to throw to.
“He doesn’t talk much. He’s not going to sit down and lecture the young guys, but the way he works, the way he prepares during the week, the way he takes care of his body, the way he mentally prepares, is a great example for us all in the locker room,” Luck said. “To boot, he’s a great football player, so it’s fun getting able to throw to him.”
With Manning sidelined for the entire season last year, the Colts went 2-14 — earning the right to select Luck with the top pick in the draft — and many expected Wayne to depart Indianapolis for greener pastures.
Wayne, 33, simply chose to remain with the only team he’s ever played for.
“He’s a Colt and he wanted to be a Colt bad. He’s a legend here and he’s going to go into the Hall of Fame,” Colts interim Coach Bruce Arians said. “He knew what he was getting into and I think he’s excited more than anybody with the change. He’s a rookie in this offense, too. Because he sat out on the left side for 10 years and now he’s all over the place, running routes that he’s never run before.”
Patriots Coach Bill Belichick wouldn’t say whether Wayne’s surprisingly successful season was solely attributed to the emergence of Luck, who has connected with Wayne for three touchdowns so far. To him, Wayne is the same lethal receiver he’s always been.
“I don’t really see Reggie Wayne much differently than I saw him in the past. He was good then, he’s good now,” Belichick said. “There were some issues last year with their quarterbacking and passing game and all that but I didn’t see any drop-off in Reggie Wayne as a football player.”
Tasked with trying to slow Wayne and the Colts’ aerial assault this weekend, New England safety Steve Gregory also hasn’t noticed anything different about the standout receiver.
“Just being Reggie Wayne,” he said. “That guy’s a consistently excellent wide receiver in the NFL. That’s why he’s around so long and that’s why you’ve got to know where he is at all times.”
After missing two practices earlier in the week with an ankle injury, Welker returned to the field Friday but refused to place a percentage on his health.
“I don’t know if anybody’s 100 percent at this point in the season,” he said. “I don’t know where I’m at. I’m just looking forward to getting better and trying to contribute on Sunday.”
Even if Manning’s not on the other sideline anymore.
“They’re a 6-3 team and playing really good football right now with a young group of guys,” Welker said. “Reggie Wayne’s playing really well and their defense flies around pretty good.
“So, I’d say that’s still a pretty big rivalry.”