Nothing but respect for Welker as opponent

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In speaking to Patriots players this week about the return of Wes Welker to Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, their message has been two-fold: a mash-up of reverence for Welker as a player and an acknowledgement that playing against former teammates is a reality often faced in the NFL.

“That’s the one thing about the NFL, you’re playing against old teammates, guys that are going other places, every year,” defensive end and captain Rob Ninkovich said. “It’s not a new thing to play somebody you had on a team before, or were teammates with in college.

“Wes is a great football player, but he’s not a part of the team,” he added. “We’re going to play him like we play everybody.”

The double-barreled sentiment is understandable.

Before heading to the Denver Broncos, Welker’s contributions over six seasons with the Patriots were immeasurable, and not just from a statistical sense.

“To me, I think it’s toughness,” fellow defensive captain Devin McCourty replied when asked what trait stuck out most about Welker. “Being able to run a route over the middle or run routes outsides, he’ll block you, he’ll do everything at that position, and I think that’s what makes him not just a good player, [but] a complete player.”

But the challenge for the Patriots this Sunday isn't simply finding a way to slow down Welker, as the Broncos boast the league’s best offense that is complete with an All Pro talent flanking Welker in Demaryius Thomas and upstart tight end Julius Thomas, as well as talented receiver Eric Decker.

And the defense, while less heralded, presents a unique challenge of its own.

“I’ve already expressed in the past how much [Welker’s] done for me,” wide receiver Julian Edelman said before adding. “And ultimately right now, I’m not going to jump into that because I’m [more] focused on the defense than who’s playing on offense.”

From that standpoint, it makes sense that the Patriots aren’t simply treating this Sunday with the feel of a reunion tour for a band that once was, presuming Welker takes the field after suffering a concussion last Sunday night.

Few doubt Welker will play, as McCourty echoed Tom Brady’s presumption from earlier this week that he will indeed suit up.

“We know he’s probably going to be out there, he doesn’t miss many games,” McCourty said. “We know that from playing with him and we expect to see him Sunday.”

On the outside, the return of Welker has generated more buzz than the storyline of the 14th game featuring Tom Brady and Peyton Manning sharing the same field.

For six seasons, the incomparably tough Welker produced on the field while maintaining a likable yet business-like approach off of it. He absorbed and shook off hits from hulking safeties and linebackers as if he had the stature of a fullback, getting up and back to the line of scrimmage like he had a coat of armor protecting him from contact. He played and practiced through injuries, displaying a toughness McCourty alluded to and that earned him respect from an entire region of fans.

Ultimately, the Patriots and Welker were unable to come to terms on a multi-year contract, leading him to sign with Denver.

It’s enticing to play the “what if” game and wonder if the Patriots' early offensive woes would have been partially alleviated had Welker been on the team this year.

Danny Amendola, the nominal Welker replacement, has dealt with injuries throughout the season, but, when healthy, he and Edelman have combined to give the Patriots more than respectable production from the slot position.

Would the Patriots have been better off keeping Welker? It’s a question we can never answer with certainty.

What we do know, both from the 672 regular-season catches he produced as a Patriot and the way his former teammates have spoken of him this week, is that Welker’s impact in New England was greater than anyone anticipated when the team acquired him in a trade during the 2007 offseason.

Far greater.

That’s why, despite some uncertainty surrounding his status for Sunday night’s game, the return of Wes Welker looms larger than any other storyline this week.