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At the heart of the matter

Welker lauded for his toughness and talent

By Zuri Berry
Globe Staff / December 14, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Wes Welker, one of the few constants for the Patriots the last three seasons, is finding himself in good company.

By eclipsing 100 receptions for the third straight season in the third quarter of yesterday’s win over the Panthers, Welker joined a club that includes Jerry Rice.

Welker tied the future Hall of Famer, as well as former Lions great Herman Moore, for consecutive seasons with at least 100 catches with his fifth of 10 catches yesterday, a 6-yarder after which he was drilled by Carolina safety Charles Godfrey.

Only Marvin Harrison, with four, has more consecutive seasons with 100 catches or more.

After the game, coach Bill Belichick hinted at a comparison between Welker and former Patriot Troy Brown.

“He’s got a lot of heart,’’ Belichick said of Welker. “He’s a heck of a football player. He shows up every day to work. I know he’s been banged up, but he fights through it, returns punts, catches the ball, blocks. He goes into the corner after the puck, too. He’s not just scoring goals; he’s going in there and digging it out in the corner.

“He’s a tough football player,’’ Belichick continued. “He reminds me a lot of another slot receiver that we had here for a long time, kind of the same way.’’

Being the modest sort, Welker downplayed any connection to Rice and Harrison.

“I wouldn’t put myself in their category at all,’’ Welker said. “Those guys are obviously Hall of Famers. I still got a lot of years ahead of me and a lot of plays that I need to continue to make and continue to do well out there on the field.’’

The Carolina defense, against which Welker racked up 105 receiving yards, was certainly impressed.

“Wes Welker is a very underrated player,’’ said safety Chris Harris. “He is one of the best, if not the best, in the game right now. I thought we did a good job on him in the first half, but in the second half he kind of got rolling. He is a very crafty receiver. It is kind of like backyard football. ‘Go get open.’ And he is very good at it.’’

Panthers linebacker Jon Beason agreed.

“I train with Wes down in Fort Lauderdale [Fla.],’’ he said. “He is a beast. He works hard every day. He is a special guy.’’

Welker is averaging 105.3 receiving yards per game this season. And he tied Harrison for fewest games needed to reach 100 receptions (11), has five 100-yard receiving games this season, and 13 in his career.

This past week, Welker also may have elevated his stature in the Patriots’ locker room. Realizing the adversity the team faced, losing three of its last four games, he called out the team along with quarterback Tom Brady.

And he made sure he backed it up yesterday.

“It’s what it’s about,’’ Welker said. “Being a leader and really kind of stepping up. You can’t be a guy that’s going to be rah-rah and then go in the tank and not play up to par of what you want your teammates to do. You got to back that up. Any time you sit there and call a team out or sit there and try to do some rah-rah type deal, you got to back it up. That’s what it comes down to and I want to make sure I bring it every week like that. Not necessarily rah-rah or anything like that, but make sure that if I say something, I’m out there doing it as well.’’

His teammates took notice. With the Patriots’ offense sputtering in the third quarter, Welker’s play was the spark.

It took him getting drilled by Godfrey to get his teammates fired up.

“When you watch him play, you’re going to get a spark a lot,’’ said center Dan Koppen. “He just goes out there and gives you everything he’s got on every play. You want a definition of a football player, you look at No. 83. He’s a tough guy and he’s one of the keys to our offense.

“When he does that, you better get a spark.’’

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com.

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