The feel-good portion of the Terrell Thomas story is about to come to a very quick end.
It was inspiring to see the cornerback work all offseason to return from a third ACL reconstruction. It was impressive how he played well enough in the preseason to make the team. It was satisfying to see him step on the field last week against Dallas for his first regular-season game in nearly 1,000 days.
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But all of that is behind him now. This week, he's just a football player, and his job will be one of the most important on the field. He'll be in the nickel, covering the man who didn't invent but certainly redefined the slot receiver position: Wes Welker.
"It's an exciting challenge," Thomas said. "He's an All-Pro, Pro Bowl-caliber receiver in the slot, one of the best in there. It's a great challenge for me and the defense. I'm excited to go up against him."
Welker is coming off a six-year stretch unmatched by any other receiver in NFL history. From 2007-12, he caught 672 passes for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns. That was mostly with Tom Brady as his quarterback as a member of the Patriots.
Now he's with the Broncos and teamed up with another Hall of Fame quarterback. And Peyton Manning just so happens to be the passer who put the ball in the hands of the only other receiver in NFL history to catch nearly as many passes as Welker in a six-year span. From 1999 to 2004, Marvin Harrison caught 649 passes, the record until Welker eclipsed it last year.
In his first game with Manning as quarterback, Welker caught nine passes for 67 yards and two of Manning's seven touchdowns.
"We personally believe this: Wes doesn't have a whole lot of bad games," Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "He's been a pretty good receiver and has been pretty consistent for the last eight years or so."
He's also one of the few players on the Broncos' offense with whom the Giants are fairly familiar. They play Denver once every four years, and it's been three years since they faced Manning. But when Welker was with the Patriots, the Giants faced him four times, two of those in Super Bowls.
"We think that he has some routes that he likes to run that he's very comfortable running," Fewell said. "Peyton gets him involved in the offense in a way that he feels that's a seamless transition and he has the ability to take it vertically and go down the field and he has the ability to work you inside. So it's classic Wes Welker and he's at his best."
Welker has caught 38 passes for 421 yards in those four games against the Giants, but perhaps his most memorable play against them was one he didn't make. The Patriots had the ball and a two-point lead with 3:46 remaining in Super Bowl XLVI when Welker came wide open. Had he converted a first down, it probably would have sealed the victory. Instead, he dropped the pass.
Thomas, who was on IR that season, has never lined up against Welker. Antrel Rolle was the one covering him in that game. But Thomas has seen enough of him to know what he'll be up against.
"He's good at what he does and he's a slot wide receiver to the T," Thomas said. "He's very explosive out of his breaks. If you can be explosive out of your breaks out of the slot, it makes you very productive. He's very good east and west, but he's not as explosive north to south compared to east to west."
Whichever direction Welker goes, Thomas will have to be trailing him. Thomas played well in his first game this season, covering Miles Austin in a similar position last Sunday. But Welker is at a different level. And Thomas' major advantage against receivers -- his size -- might not work against Welker even though he's got him by about three inches and almost 10 pounds.
"You can try to take him out and be physical with him, but he finds a way to win," Fewell said. "I'm sure Peyton expects him to win in matchups also."
Thomas doesn't. Even though he'll be playing in only his second real game in two years.
"I'm not worried about it," he said. "My knee is fine, I've proven that in this last game going against another slot receiver in Miles Austin, who's a little bit bigger, more powerful guy, but I think I held my own against him. I'm looking forward to the challenge. I know [Welker] is one of the best out there on top of having Peyton Manning, so it's a big challenge for the defense and myself."
And if he can do the job? Well, the emotional aspect of Thomas' return may have run its course, but there's no reason he and the Giants can't continue to feel good about his play.