FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Jerry Rice never did it. Neither did Marvin Harrison. On Sunday, Wes Welker takes his swing for it.
Just eight more catches and the New England Patriots standout receiver will achieve another of his many milestones that he insists he doesn’t dwell on. He’ll break a tie with those retired stars and become the first player with 100 receptions in five different seasons.
Is he looking forward to it? Is he excited for it? Does he even care?
“Maybe when I’m done playing,” Welker said Friday. “But right now, I’m just focused on how ever many catches I need to get to help us win.”
Welker has a decent chance to make those eight grabs on Monday night when the New England Patriots (9-3) face the Houston Texans (11-1) in a marquee AFC matchup. After all, he’s averaging 7.3 receptions per game in his six seasons since being traded here from Miami, and he traditionally shows well in big spots.
He could add that to an already-long list of accomplishments on Monday:
— Welker is tied with Rice in NFL history with 17 games of at least 10 catches.
— Welker is on pace to break a tie with Cris Carter as the only player to catch 120 passes in a season twice.
— Welker has the most receptions in the past six seasons (646), by a large margin over Brandon Marshall (565).
And oh yeah, what truly matters is this. The Patriots have won six in a row and they are already the AFC East champions as they welcome the conference’s top team.
“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,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “That’s what quarterbacks dream about.”
Grabbing 100 passes seemed far from certain early in the season. Getting on the field, in fact, was a bigger issue.
Welker took part in just 70.5 percent of the offensive snaps in the first two games after participating in 88.9 percent of them during the 2011 regular season. Julian Edelman even started in his place in the second game.
“It’s a long season so you just keep on battling, keep on working hard,” Welker said Friday. “That doesn’t change, even now.”
Coach Bill Belichick never explained his reasoning, and Welker said he felt “fine” physically. In the season opener against Tennessee, Welker sat out 25 of the 67 offensive snaps. But in the past four games, he missed a total of just 23 plays.
And in Sunday’s 23-16 win over Miami, he had 12 catches for 103 yards, and was thrown to 18 times.
Now, he has an NFL-high 92 snares — one more than Marshall — and is seventh with 1,064 yards receiving. And with injuries aplenty — Edelman is out for the season with a foot injury suffered last Sunday, and tight end Rob Gronkowski is likely to miss his third straight game with a broken forearm — Brady could be looking for Welker even more than usual.
“There’s pressure on everybody,” Welker said. “Everybody’s got to step up.”
He prefers not to look back at the knee injury he suffered at Houston in the last game of the 2009 season that forced him to miss the playoffs. It’s all about moving forward for Welker.
After all, that is the New England way.
“I’m really trying not to think about it too much. (I) appreciate you bringing that up,” Welker said with a grin. “I’ve just moved on from it and just worked hard and tried to get better.
“And, luckily, I’m where I’m at today.”
He also won’t look ahead to where he might be next season, once his $9.5 million, one-year deal that came with his franchise tag expires. There will be a time to think about contracts. This weekend is not that time.
“I’m not worried about a contract at all,” he said.
And when he says that, you get the sense that he truly means it. His statistics might not be this high otherwise. In fact, special teams captain and wide receiver Matthew Slater, along the way, has admired Welker’s “professionalism” in five years as teammates.
“A guy like that who’s been able to accomplish all that he has here, he never loses his sense of urgency. He never loses the respect that you have to have for this game,” Slater said. “It would be easy for a guy like that to take a couple of days off or not practice as hard here and there, but he doesn’t.”
That can motivate his teammates, of course. Yet another trait synonymous with the Patriots.
“If you see a guy who’s caught 100 balls every year working harder than everybody else, you definitely better be working as hard as you can,” Slater said. “There’s no room for slacking.”
So, as expected, Welker is preparing diligently to face the Texans and a secondary that’s banged up. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph was limited in practice Friday after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury and Houston coach Gary Kubiak said a decision on whether he’ll play will be made in the next couple of days.
Joseph said he expects to play. But nickel cornerback Brice McCain had surgery on his left foot on Monday and Alan Ball missed the last game with a sore foot. Clearly, the Texans a bit dinged.
“You don’t have as much film” on players who will fill in, Welker said. “But you can still study the games that they are in there, and really try and get an edge.”
Welker usually does.
As a slot receiver, he catches passes at the line of scrimmage as well as quick slants, then does a good job running after the catch. He also can take advantage of certain defensive formations and break down field. And he makes key contributions even when the ball is thrown to someone else. He doesn’t give up on plays.
That’s not likely the change.
“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,” Brady said. “I think that’s what makes Wes really special, is his selflessness as a player.
“But the ball always seems to find a way to him.”
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