FOXBORO -- Wes Welker looked like hell. He looked like a guy who, over the course of a five-month football season, caught 118 passes and took just as many hits.
After Thursday's practice he walked to a podium for his media-access period wearing flip flops and sporting a black eye that had already turned various shades of purple, yellow and red. He didn't know exactly how he earned that particular badge of courage, just that it was a result of one of the many shots he absorbed during last week's Divisional Round win over the Texans, 41-28.
As the Patriots prepare for the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, there has been talk of toughness, usually in reference to the Ravens. Their veteran linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis returned from a torn triceps to play in this year's playoffs. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs returned from a torn achilles this season less than a year after shredding it. As a team, the Ravens like to hit hard. Born out of the mold of the traditionally-rugged AFC North, they're bonafide tough.
But an argument could be made that the toughest individual player on the field Sunday will be New England's 5-foot-9, 190-pound slot receiver. Welker has made a career over the middle of the field, braving hits from linebackers and safeties. And since punt returner Julian Edelman was lost for the season to injury, Welker has taken that job and put himself in position to take a few more crunching blows every game.
The baffling question is not why, but how? How has Welker, at his size, remained so consistent -- earlier this year he became the first ever receiver to notch 100 receptions in five straight seasons -- in a role that is so punishing?
"I think the two key things are being tough and being smart," Welker said. "Being able to take those hits and do all those things, and at the same time, being smart and understanding what the defense is doing and being able to attack it in a certain way where you can maybe make those windows just a little bit bigger where you're not taking those hits and things like that. I would attribute being tough and being smart, and really understanding the game."
Welker is a master of deflecting head-on shots. As a punt returner, it's a skill that stands out. Rarely does he take a heavy hit as he starts up field with no momentum while opponents come barreling down on him at full speed. A subtle dip of his shoulder. A twist of just a few degrees. Sometimes that's all it takes. That's the difference between staying on the field for that subsequent offensive series and some other, more painful result.
His team is concerned about him. They need him, especially now with tight end Rob Gronkowski -- the team's much larger middle-of-the-field target -- sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs with a broken arm.
Welker said on Thursday that he's spoken with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady about how to avoid big hits.
"It's a long season," Welker said. "Every little hit, it adds up. There are times where you gotta know when the ride's over and get down and live to see another day and things like that. So we've discussed it before, but at the same time, when you need a first down or whatever, you gotta do what you gotta do."
That's the rub. Welker has become one of the NFL's best receivers because of his toughness. Coming out of high school, he was too small for Division 1 football. He went on to star at the Division 1 program at Texas Tech. Then he was too small for the NFL. Now he's the most reliable and productive option in one of the most prolific offenses of all time.
He's hard-wired to try. Knowing when the ride is over isn't his strong suit. But he knows enough to pick his spots.
"You learn," he said with a smile.
But even when Welker chooses wrong, he pops back up. Playing tough is who he is. He knows it's not achieved by talking or trying to intimidate, which the Ravens have been known to do at times here at Gillette Stadium. It's something else.
"There's guys that talk trash," Welker said. "There's guys that try to hit you and do all these different things, but I feel like I've been around long enough to know a tough guy when I see one."