Patriots winning with small ball

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Ready for their big television close-up, Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead, wearing game jerseys and smiles all around, are sitting three wide in the New England Patriots' visiting locker room.

How, they are asked, does quarterback Tom Brady find them on the field when they are all listed at 5-foot-9?

"I think he misses us more times than he finds us," Welker says, laughing.

"Exactly," said Branch, trying to stifle the giggles.

Woodhead, the new guy, knows better than to rip a two-time Super Bowl MVP. He just looks over the reporter's left shoulder with wide eyes.

"I'm just playing," Welker says, pointing, "because he's over there."

Indeed he is. Brady, who is usually on the receiving end of the lights and cameras, has been enjoying this banter for awhile now. Then, just as quickly as he entered, Brady bounds from the room.

The neighboring Boston Celtics have the Big Three: Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Well, now we give you the Patriots' Little Three, a trio of undersized overachievers who have helped New England to a share the league's best record at 7-2. Even after the Philadelphia Eagles dropped 59 points on the Washington Redskins on Monday night, it is the Patriots who lead the NFL in scoring, with 258 points.

In a league in which size matters most -- the average player is 6-2, 248 pounds and the average wide receiver is 6-1 -- three of Brady's most effective targets are five inches and more than 50 pounds below the norm. By season's end, Welker, Branch and Woodhead might be shorter than Brady's Medusa-esque hair.

"We know our limitations out there on the field," Welker said. "At the same time, we know what we can do and we go out there and do it well. We never look at it as, 'Oh, I'm going against this bigger guy, I don't know if I can do this.' It's more, 'I'm going to dominate this guy.' "

While it was rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski who killed the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night with three touchdowns, the Little Three allowed it to happen, keeping Pittsburgh's secondary occupied. Welker (8 catches, 89 yards), Branch (7 for 71) and Woodhead (2 for 22) combined for 17 catches and 182 yards.

Heading into Sunday afternoon's typically important game against the Indianapolis Colts, the diminutive trio has combined for 142 touches, 1,133 yards and seven touchdowns for the Patriots.

Under coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots are considered by many to be the NFL's smartest team. Maybe a better word is resourceful. Or enterprising. Creative? Or merely pragmatic? New England won three Super Bowls in four years (appearing in four in a seven-year stretch) by taking players who weren't coveted by other teams and putting them in the right spot:

• Brady himself is a good example. Selected No. 199 in the 2000 draft, he won 76 of his first 100 starts, more than any quarterback in league history.

• In 2004, receiver Troy Brown (listed at 5-10), played nickel defensive back, recording three interceptions and 17 tackles, matching his reception total.

• In eight seasons with the Patriots, linebacker Mike Vrabel caught eight passes -- all for touchdowns.

• Five years ago, Doug Flutie (5-9) authored the NFL's first successful drop kick in more than 60 seasons.

These petite Pats continue the less-is-more trend.

This is Welker's fourth season in New England. The first three produced an amazing 346 catches; he was first or second in receptions all three seasons. Despite tearing two knee ligaments in Week 17 last season, he has come back to lead the Patriots again, with 52 catches for 444 yards and three touchdowns.

For the record, Welker said, he actually stands 5-9 and weighs 185 pounds.


"Five-nine, dead solid," Welker said. "I mean, what do you want from me?"

Branch spent four seasons with the Patriots, winning the MVP award in Super Bowl XXXIX. He wasn't nearly as effective in four-plus seasons in Seattle, but when Randy Moss was traded to Minnesota this season, the Patriots traded for Branch. He's got 23 catches for 250 yards and a touchdown for the Pats.

"I'm pushing 5-10," Branch said.

But the roster says 5-9.

"Yeah," Branch said, "but they don't add the three-quarters."

Woodhead, a two-time NCAA Division II player of the year at Chadron State (Neb.), was waived by the New York Jets on Sept. 14, then signed by the Patriots four days later, before their Week 2 game against the Jets. What looked like a quick pickup has become a full-time gig for Woodhead, who has 18 catches for 196 yards and a touchdown. He's also the second-leading rusher behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, with 49 carries for 243 yards (5.0 average) and two touchdowns. Oh, he's also got six special-teams tackles.

Though Woodhead is the heaviest of the three -- he claims to weigh 200 pounds, and looks it -- he admits to standing closer to 5-8.

"Five-seven and three-quarters," Woodhead said. "Something like that."

For what it's worth, Woodhead's jersey is size 46, while Welker and Branch wear size 44.

"That's just because they gave him [traded Laurence] Maroney's old jersey," Branch said.

Joking aside, these three athletes compensate for their lack of size with speed and intelligence, among other things.

"Heart -- it's all heart, work ethic," Branch said. "It's all about what you put in during the offseason. Everybody thinks you've got to be tall, strong, you've got to be fast to play the game, and it's not that way."

"Instead of looking at the stuff that's considered a disadvantage, I try to use my skill set -- hands, speed and smarts, too," Woodhead said.

Added Welker: "I never feel like they get a good shot on you. I would say that the fans out there -- the average American is probably under 6 feet -- in a way, they're kind of living through you."

Even if it looks like nose tackle Vince Wilfork just ate the three of them for lunch.

When the 6-4 Moss was traded, conspiracy theorists might have wondered if there was a secret anti-tall agenda. After all, Moss was the Patriots' tallest receiver. Is it a coincidence that Belichick is listed at 5-10 and has always had an affinity for undersized targets?

"That's a good thing," Branch said, laughing, "[because] it means we'll be here forever."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.