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Welker: Toughness, smarts make up for size

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Welker: Toughness, smarts make up for size

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."

Rask helped off ice at Bruins practice after collision

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Rask helped off ice at Bruins practice after collision

BRIGHTON, Mass – Tuukka Rask had to be helped off the ice midway through practice Wednesday when it appeared rookie Anders Bjork crashed hard into the Bruins No. 1 goaltender in a drill. 

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Rask never returned in what looked like another streak of bad luck for the B’s. Rask is off to a slow start at 1-3-0, with a 3.30 goals-against average and .882 save percentage, but Boston can ill afford to lose their top goalie right now.

The Bruins continue to look for the right mix of players at the start of the season and they’ve called up a couple of forwards off to hot starts in Providence for a look.

Big, skilled Slovakian winger Peter Cehlarik and AHL scoring champ Kenny Agostino have both been called up while it looks like some struggling NHL veterans, perhaps Matt Beleskey and Frank Vatrano, might be hitting the pine.

The two call-ups, along with Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson were off to a red-hot start in Providence: Agostino leads Providence with two goals and five assists for seven points (tied for third in AHL) with a plus-four rating in three games this season. Cehlarik is second on the team with two goals and three assists for five points with a plus-three rating in three games with Providence.

Patrice Bergeron was again wearing the maroon no-contact jersey at practice on Wednesday while participating in line drills, and it would appear it’s going to be a stretch for him to be available vs. the Canucks. Adam McQuaid returned to practice on Wednesday, so Ryan Spooner was the only injured Bruins regular that wasn’t able to suit up and practice with the team.

Tuukka Rask had to be helped off the ice midway through practice when it looked like Anders Bjork crashed hard into the Bruins No. 1 goaltender in a drill. Rask never returned in what looked like another streak of bad luck for the B’s. Rask is off to a slow start at 1-3-0, with a 3.30 goals-against average and .882 save percentage, but Boston can ill afford to lose their top goalie right now.

Here are the line combos and D-pairings from Wednesday afternoon’s practice with it looking like David Backes might be up for a possible return on Thursday:  
 
Marchand-Bergeron-Bjork
DeBrusk-Krejci-Pastrnak
Schaller-Kuraly-Backes
Cehlarik-Nash-Agostino
 
Beleskey-White-Vatrano
 
Chara-McAvoy
Krug-Carlo
Miller-Postma
McQuaid
 
Rask
Khudobin
 

Butler never flips 'off' switch, even in locker-room games

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Butler never flips 'off' switch, even in locker-room games

FOXBORO -- Say this for Malcolm Butler: Since his rookie season he's proven time and again to be an utterly resilient player.

Go back to Super Bowl XLIX. He was beside himself on the sidelines after Jermaine Kearse somehow came up with an acrobatic grab on a pass he deflected in the fourth quarter. Moments later he was back on the field to make the play of life.

Against the Jets on Sunday, he had to make another -- albeit less dramatic -- turnaround.

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Early on, it wasn't pretty. He allowed a third-and-long conversion when he played well off of Robby Anderson during a first-quarter touchdown drive. He allowed 31-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Kerley when he made a bad gamble to try to break up the throw.

Yet without Butler's interception at the end of the first half, and without his strip of Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the fourth quarter, the Patriots might be 3-3 headed into a Super Bowl rematch with the Falcons.

The competitive streak that Butler has exhibited to make game-changing moments regardless of what has happened earlier in the game is something that Bill Belichick has grown accustomed to.

"Since the first rookie minicamp," Belichick said. "He’s a very competitive player, whatever it is. Practice, games, trash ball in the locker room. Whatever it is. He’s a very competitive player."

Earlier this season, in Week 2 against the Saints, Butler was briefly demoted to the No. 3 cornerback role. After the fact, he was open about how he wasn't playing up to his own lofty standards. Since then, he's been the only regular for the Patriots at his position as Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe have dealt with injuries. 

It's been far from perfect, as moments like his breakdowns during the Jets game exhibited. But his aggressiveness rarely wanes. Even during down moments in the Patriots locker, apparently. 

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