Welker leads Patriots past Raiders

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Bill Belichick said that it takes about four weeks into the regular season to really know what type of team he has, so what have we learned about the New England Patriots? The defense looks vulnerable, the offense appears potent and receiver Wes Welker is the "heart and soul" of the operation.

When stepping back to analyze the 3-1 Patriots at this point, one can choose any of the three and be in bounds.

For now, let's focus on Welker, who remarkably is on pace for a 160-catch season after another stellar effort in Sunday's 31-19 victory over the Raiders at the O.co Coliseum on Sunday.

"Nothing surprises me with Wes. He's the heart and soul of this team," quarterback Tom Brady said after Welker totaled nine catches for 158 yards and a touchdown. "He's become a real dynamic player over the years, made some huge plays for us. He's clutch, mentally and physically tough."

On a week in which the Patriots' toughness and physicality was called into question, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker showed that one doesn't have to be big and burly to play the game that way.

He took a few huge hits, the type that make one ask the question, "How does he keep getting up from those?" But he did each time, which was especially important because there were times it seemed Brady had eyes for only him. Of Brady's 30 pass attempts, 14 were fired in Welker's direction.

The Raiders knew what was coming; they were just powerless to stop it.

"The guy is a good player, and he made some uncommon plays," Raiders coach Hue Jackson said. "He's good, and with the quarterback, they're on the same page. Trust me, we tried to make sure they didn't catch all those balls. They are a tandem, and they're very good at what they do. They've been doing it to everybody."

The Brady-to-Welker connection is the best thing the Patriots have going for them right now. That alone won't be enough to help them reach their ultimate goal, but after four games, it has carried them to a first-place tie in the AFC East.

Welker now has an NFL-high 40 catches for 616 yards on the season, but when Brady calls him the "heart and soul" of the team, he's looking beyond those statistics.

"He sets a great example of what he's willing to do to commit himself to be the best he can be for this team," he said. "He never takes a day off, never takes a practice off, never takes a play off, run or pass. What you see in a game is what he does in practice for us every day. And he never complains."

When it comes to the business side of the game, Welker has a growing case to lodge a few complaints.

His blazing start, coupled with Chad Ochocinco's slow assimilation to the team's system, shines a spotlight on his strong case for a contract extension. Welker is in the final year of his contract, earning $2.2 million in base salary. Ochocinco was given a $4.5 million signing bonus and will earn $6 million this season.

Something doesn't seem right with that math.

Yet Welker has consistently downplayed his desire for an extension, letting his play do the talking. That's been the loudest statement of all.

"I feel like this is the best I've ever felt. This is the best I've played in my career," he said. "My attitude toward the game, and the work I put into it understanding this is my job and taking it very seriously, has helped out this year."

Welker, who led the NFL in dropped passes in 2010 but has returned to his sticky-handed ways, appreciated Brady's thoughts that he's the "heart and soul" of the club. At the same time, he talked about how he wasn't the only one who brings a lot of heart and soul.

"That's what it's about, and the more guys we get on the wagon, the better we're going to be," he said.

As for how much better the Patriots can be, it's hard to imagine they'll go far given the concerning state of the defense. But for one day, at least, Welker's toughness and excellence lessened the impact of those questions, his effort helping will the Patriots to another win.

Just another day at the office for the "heart and soul" of the team.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.