FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Joe Montana had the great Jerry Rice to catch his passes, said the voice on sports talk radio. Who does Tom Brady have?

I waited to hear Wes Welker’s name and didn’t. I wanted to hear Welker’s name mentioned in the same breath with Rice. Maybe I was distracted by the ridges of slush in my driving lane during Wednesday’s snowfall. Maybe I missed the mention.

Maybe the Patriots’ little tough man was overlooked again.

Pro football fans love big. Big men and the big plays they make. Big collisions. Big gets respect. Small, as in under 5-foot-9, Wes Welker small, gets a pat on the top of the helmet.

Small becomes invisible when the conversation is about what receivers helped make a quarterback great.

The Patriots play the Baltimore Ravens Sunday evening for the AFC championship. The game will be framed by history. It could be the last game for Ray Lewis, the Ravens All-Pro linebacker, who is retiring.

It could be Tom Brady’s last or best chance to win a fourth Super Bowl. He turns 36 in August. It might be Welker’s last game at Gillette Stadium. He’s a free agent after the season.

Would you miss Welker if he leaves? You should. After Brady, Welker is the next player the Patriots can’t lose to injury or to an expired contract. He’s worth his supposed 185 pounds in gold.

He became a Patriot for the 2007 season. He’s caught more than 100 passes in five of his six years with the team. Brady’s found him over the middle of the field or along the sideline. For short yards or very long touchdowns.

Find Welker in the NFL record book. Look for his name listed with Rice, Marvin Harrison and Brandon Marshall, all elite receivers. OK, so Welker doesn’t have Rice numbers for receptions or yards gained or touchdowns. But then, Welker is only 31 years old.

“He’s still here,” said Stevan Ridley, the Patriots’ second-year running back. “No matter what they say about him. He’s too small. He’s not this, he’s not that. But he’s still producing.”

Years ago Welker told the story of coming home from the hospital after he was born. His older brother, Leland, asked mom if this was his new baby brother. Yes, said mom. Meet Wesley Carter Welker.

Lee Welker made a fist and popped his baby brother in the nose. Welcome to the family.

“I think that’s where I get my toughness,” said Wes Welker before the Patriots’ loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl in February 2008. “I owe it to my big brother.”

Other than a knee injury at the end of the 2009 season, Welker has been remarkably durable. Yet as tough as he is, he cried at his locker last February after he couldn’t catch a pass thrown over his left shoulder late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.

Welker turned around and leaped but couldn’t make the reception that would have gotten a first down, extended a drive, and kept the ball out of Eli Manning’s hands.

Instead, the Giants got the ball and Manning drove his team to the winning touchdown. Welker doesn’t talk about the play, but he hasn’t forgotten. It’s a chip carried on his shoulder.

He didn’t get the multiyear contract he wanted and some thought Coach Bill Belichick was going to phase him out of the Patriots’ offense. Ridiculous thought, in hindsight.

“He’s still a leader on this team, a player we look up to,” said Ridley. “That’s a real football player right there, regardless of his size, regardless of his speed, regardless of his hands, regardless of all the things that you say bad about him, his heart outweighs all of that. He leads this team week in and week out, right there with Tom Brady.”

Linebacker Rob Ninkovich said Welker was one of the toughest players in the game. The guy who bounces back from the big hits again and again. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd sees a player who understands how to operate in the voids of a zone defense or man-to-man coverage.

“There are a lot of contested catches and collision catches,” said Lloyd. “A lot of opportunities to be separated from the football. The little tough man won’t give it up easily.”

There was only one Jerry Rice. There’s only one Wes Welker.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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