ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — He traded Picasso for Michelangelo. Or maybe it was the other way around.
While John Elway famously said he had no Plan B when he signed Peyton Manning in 2012, Wes Welker certainly had one when the New England Patriots low-balled him on a contract offer last winter.
Welker jumped at the chance to team up with Manning in Denver, where he signed a two-year deal for $12 million, $1 million more per year than the Patriots had offered.
After spending six seasons as Tom Brady‘s top target in New England, Welker was Manning’s leading receiver before missing the final month of the season with a concussion.
He still finished with 73 receptions for 778 yards and a career-best 10 touchdowns and added another in Denver’s 24-17 win over San Diego in the AFC divisional round.
After an unhappy homecoming at Foxboro in November, when his blunder on a punt in the wind led to a 34-31 loss to New England, Welker gets another chance to stick it to his old team Sunday when the Broncos and Patriots square off with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Welker has been asked ever since his arrival in Denver to compare the two quarterbacks with Hall of Fame credentials, something he finds harder to do than to go across the middle with a menacing middle linebacker bearing down on him.
“It’s like comparing Picasso and Michelangelo,” he said. “It’s hard to compare the two.”
Welker isn’t sure if he’s a Michelangelo guy or a Picasso guy, either.
“I couldn’t even tell you,” Welker confessed, revealing he’s less an art aficionado than he is a connoisseur of quarterbacks. “Somebody threw those names at me one time and I thought it sounded pretty good.”
What sounded good to Manning was having Welker in the slot this season to team with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside and emerging tight end Julius Thomas to ensure one of them would always be single-covered — or even wide open.
Along with rejuvenated running back Knowshon Moreno, all four caught 60 or more passes and reached the end zone at least 10 times apiece.
While Brady’s done a masterful job of getting the Patriots to a third straight AFC title game despite having a new cast of ball-catchers, Patriots safety Steve Gregory said the Broncos’ embarrassment of riches at receiver is evident when, at times, Welker becomes Manning’s fourth or even fifth option.
“Yeah, it’s impressive. You know, Decker, Thomas — the two Thomases — and then Wes. We know what Wes is. Wes is a great receiver. He does a heck of a job in the slot and they have spots they move him around to. So, we’re going to have to be on top of our ‘A ‘game.”
Welker, of course, was asked again this week about the differences between Brady and Manning, admittedly the only other quarterback he wanted to play for after being spoiled by all those spirals from 2007-2012.
“I’ll try and answer this and be as indifferent as possible,” he said. “There aren’t too many differences. They are great quarterbacks. They do a great job of keeping guys accountable, and their leadership skills and everything else. They are two guys you want quarterbacking your team. It’s a toss-up between those two.”
The Broncos are sure glad they’ll have Welker on their side Sunday.
“He’s tough, because he’s talented,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “He’s quick. He’s fast. He’s aggressive. He blocks well. I mean, there’s not a part of his game that he’s weak at. I’m very, very aware of that playing him over the years.”
The meticulous Manning, known for his grinding work ethic, found a kindred spirit in Welker.
“I always assumed that he was an extremely competitive guy that loved football and a guy that loved to work, he loved to practice, the way he played — I saw him many a time play Colts vs. the Patriots — so to have him become a Bronco, all those things checked out,” Manning said.
“He’s a gym rat. He loves the game, loves to work after practice, loves to talk in meetings about routes that he thinks might have a chance to get open. He’s very knowledgeable of defenses and how teams have played him in the past, whether they’ve double-covered him or whatever it may be.
“So he’s been a fun guy to play with, I’ll say that.”