FOXBOROUGH, Mass.

The question seemed to blind-side Tom Brady and he reacted quickly as if he were zipping the ball to one of his three star receivers.

It’s rare, isn’t it, to have a tight end as the marquee player on offense?

“Well,” Brady told the reporter, “Wes is pretty good, too.”

With Rob Gronkowski getting so much attention — from defensive players, highlight clips and the media — Wes Welker sometimes seems overshadowed in the New England Patriots outstanding offense.

In Saturday night’s 45-10 divisional playoff win over the Denver Broncos, the spotlight focused on Gronkowski and tight end Aaron Hernandez, each weighing at least 245 pounds. Welker weighs just 185.

Gronkowski caught 10 passes, three for touchdowns. Hernandez grabbed one scoring pass and gained 43 yards on a run out of the backfield. Welker did score on a 7-yard pass, but his 9.2 yards per catch were just fifth on the team.

The Baltimore Ravens defense, though, better not let its guard down against Welker in Sunday’s AFC championship game.

The speedy, elusive slot receiver led the NFL with 122 catches and 1,569 yards receiving this season when he was voted a first team All-Pro and chosen for his fourth straight Pro Bowl. His 554 receptions in his five seasons with New England are the most in the NFL in that span, 80 more than second-ranked Brandon Marshall.

But as this season progressed, the reputations of Gronkowski and Hernandez grew as they built on rookie years that gave a glimpse of their multiple talents when they combined for 87 receptions and 16 touchdowns. Their total this year: 169 catches and 24 scores.

Welker doesn’t think opponents are giving him more space to run his routes while they devote extra coverage to the tight ends.

“I’m just trying to do my job out there. Those two guys are phenomenal players and at some point the defense is going to realize how good they are and it’s definitely going to open up things for me and vice versa,” he said. “We all are together in this and all play together and all play our role.”

He certainly gets less attention than if he were the Patriots’ only dangerous receiving threat. Teams also must make sure that Deion Branch doesn’t get a step on his defender the way he did on his 61-yard touchdown catch against the Broncos.

It’s a difficult challenge, compounded by Brady’s extraordinary ability to read defenses and make splitsecond decisions on the best place to throw the ball.

“We don’t really know what the defense is going to do after the ball is snapped,” coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “Usually, we see multiple things. We see one coverage on one play and another coverage on another one and then a pressure somewhere along the line there.

“Who gets what and where the ball goes and whose opportunities those are is really a function on every play of how our pattern matches up with the defensive call they happen to have on. There’s really no way to know that. Sometimes you have a coverage indicator based on an alignment or film study or that kind of thing, but teams do a good job of disguising that.”



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