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Thumbs up for Dane Fletcher

LANDOVER, Md. -- One of the important storylines to monitor in the final three games will be defenders returning from injury, as it will help the inconsistent defense to have safety Patrick Chung (foot) and linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) back in the mix.

On Sunday, the Patriots had another defender return -- linebacker Dane Fletcher.

The 6-foot-2, 244-pound Fletcher was in the starting lineup between Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich in the base 4-3 defense. With the Patriots running plenty of base D, Fletcher had a large role in the game-plan as the middle linebacker. He was also on the "Big 4" special teams units -- kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return, punt coverage -- making a tackle on the game's first play.

A thumb injury had kept Fletcher out, his last appearance coming Oct. 16 against the Cowboys. The Boston Globe reported that he required multiple surgeries on his right hand/thumb.

Fletcher hadn't been playing a lot of defense at the time of his injury:

at Dolphins: 35 snaps

vs. Chargers: 29 snaps

at Bills: 12 snaps

at Raiders: 20 snaps

vs. Jets: 0 snaps

vs. Cowboys: 1 snap

On Sunday, his defensive playing time was back on the rise, and coach Bill Belichick seemed pleased with what he saw.

"He did a good job for us," Belichick said after the game. "When Dane's had a chance to play this year, he's done well. Unfortunately, he has missed a little bit of time, but he has done a good job. I thought he stepped in and was physical. It is good to have him back. Hopefully, we get some of our other guys back as soon as possible."