Welker returns to action with two TDs
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A new chapter in the Wes Welker comeback story was penned Sunday. The latest remarkable installment was an eight-catch, two-touchdown performance that proved the most productive receiver in the NFL over the past three seasons is still his old self -- despite offseason knee surgery that had some predicting he would not return until November.
Tom Brady, who spent part of his offseason working out with Welker in California, was not among them.
"I knew in February, as a matter of fact, or March, that he was going to be back out on the field on opening day," Brady said after the Patriots' 38-24 season-opening victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. "It just shows what his mind is all about. He's really overcome a lot in his career, and this thing is only going to make him better."
Welker -- who had February surgery to repair a torn ACL that was suffered in the Jan. 3 regular-season finale -- acknowledged after the game that he had aimed for the 2010 opener all along, even as he was trying to convince doctors over the winter that the goal was attainable. Usually, recovery from ACL surgery takes much longer than seven months. Despite achieving that objective with flying colors, Welker played down its significance.
"I'd like to say that it was a highlight, but it was just another game, not going out there and preparing and thinking 'This is the big comeback' or whatever," Welker said. "For me, it was just getting out there playing, being out there with my teammates and trying to contribute to a win."
The Patriots wasted no time getting Welker involved in the offense. Just as he did in Welker's first preseason game, Brady threw to him on New England's first offensive play, a 5-yard reception to get things started on a drive capped by Welker's first touchdown, a screen pass that he took 9 yards into the end zone at the 9:47 mark in the first quarter.
Tom Brady's Passing by Target
No one was happier to see Wes Welker healthy and ready to go than quarterback Tom Brady. Brady connected with his favorite target on nearly 73 percent of his attempts to Welker and targeted him on four of his seven red zone throws (three catches, two TD).
|Welker||Rest of Team|
|Att per TD||5.5||24.0|
|* - 75 percent of catches were first downs (rest of team: 41.1 percent)|
"I didn't really expect to lead off the season scoring a touchdown on our first drive," Welker said. "It's kind of a special deal with all the adversity and everything I've had to go through this offseason to get where I'm at. So to score on the opening drive was definitely a cool thing, so I'll definitely put that ball in a special spot."
His second touchdown came at the 8:58 mark in the second quarter, a 4-yard reception on a key third-down play. Welker caught the ball in the middle of the field at the goal line and was hit immediately. It was ruled a touchdown on the field, a call that was upheld after the Bengals challenged it and replays showed that the ball broke the plane of the goal line.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, never one to be too effusive with praise, gave Welker a nod after the game.
"You can't say enough about [Welker]," Belichick said. "He's worked really hard and you've got to be happy for the success that he had, but happier still for the team's success."
Brady threw to Welker 11 times, more than any other player. He finished with eight catches for 64 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that looked, well, Welker-esque. The 5-foot-9 receiver has six or more receptions in 27 of his past 31 games. He's been Brady's favorite target since he joined the Patriots in 2007 (he has an NFL-best 346 receptions over that span) and the knee injury does not seem to have affected that connection.
Still, Welker acknowledged after the game that he is not 100 percent. For starters, he wore a knee brace Sunday that he hopes to leave in his locker before long.
"I still have a ways to go. We're not all the way there yet," Welker said. "And I still have this stupid knee brace that I hate and I can't wait to burn it and everything else. But we're getting there, slowly but surely."
Just as Brady predicted the injury would ultimately make Welker a better player, the receiver admitted after that game that it has altered his outlook.
"I think it's helped me not take things for granted, really do everything you can to make yourself ready to go out there and play," Welker said. "Do everything possible you only get one shot to go out there and play in the National Football League. I just don't want to leave any stones unturned and just want to make sure I'm giving it everything I've got and not take it for granted."
David Lefort is a senior editor for ESPNBoston.com.
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