Wes Welker returns to Pats in no time

ATLANTA -- Stunningly, it was just like old times.

New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker played in a game for the first time since injuring his left knee Jan. 3, and from the moment he stepped on the field in Thursday's preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons, he was right in the middle of the action. On Welker's first three plays, he had three balls thrown in his direction.

His night was over early, after six snaps, but it was clear how much this meant to him.

"I think they are really significant," Welker said of his six plays on the field. "This is something I've really been working towards and really trying to come back and get back out there on the field. To be able to do it here in the second preseason game is kind of a milestone for me. It's something I worked my tail off to get to this whole offseason."

His long-anticipated moment came with nine minutes remaining in the first quarter of the Patriots' impressive 28-10 preseason win over the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Welker, who had undergone surgery on his torn left anterior cruciate ligament on Feb. 2, jogged in off the sideline and joined his teammates for a first-and-20 play.

His arrival in the huddle was apparently treated like an afterthought.

"It was just kind of business. There were no inspirational moments, nothing touchy-feely," Welker said. "We were just playing ball."

So Welker played it like he always has, putting that horrifying January day in Houston behind him and going to work with a clunky brace over his knee that he plans to ditch at some point.

His first play was a 6-yard completion over the middle. It sure seemed like quarterback Tom Brady was determined to get him the ball right away.

"It was a little hook route, and they play Tampa-2 [defense], so I just turned inside and sat in a little hole," Welker said. "Then I proceeded to get hit from about four different directions."

The second play was a 14-yard completion over the middle on a ball that was thrown behind him. But Welker reached back to snare it for a first down before being dragged down.

"That was just a pop pass," Welker said. "We had the run fake there, and I just tried to widen that corner and get in there and make a first down."

The third play was an unsuccessful wide receiver screen on which it looked like he took a big pop. But Welker said it wasn't as bad as it looked.

"I think the first catch I had was probably the worst of the hits I got," he said. "It's good to get those.

"It's a step forward. We got some plays out there and got some contact, which I hadn't this whole time. It was good to have out there."

Three plays, three throws to Welker. It was somewhat surreal.

"That's Wes Welker," fellow receiver Julian Edelman said. "It was great to see him out there."

"It's definitely a credit to him," added running back Fred Taylor, "to see how hard he worked in the offseason and even try to attempt to play in these games this early on. It says a lot about his character."

After learning Wednesday that he'd probably play, Welker acknowledged there were jitters leading up to the game. Most figured coach Bill Belichick would wait until the third preseason game -- at home against the St. Louis Rams -- before giving Welker the green light. But Belichick, as he often does, went off the script.

"It was a little different," Welker said. "The uncertainty of 'I'm going back out there.' You're hoping for the best, and there are some worries in your mind. Once I got out there, that all went away and I was just playing."

Belichick said after the game that he knows of no player who works as hard as Welker, and he described Welker's six-snap performance as "the next step" before adding that Welker "still has a ways to go."

Welker's presence all but assures he will be on the field in the Sept. 12 season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, which has been one of the biggest questions surrounding the Patriots during the offseason. After all, if Welker is playing in the second preseason game, why wouldn't he be there for the opener?

"I want to make sure I've giving myself every opportunity to get out there in Week 1," Welker said. "That's kind of a goal of mine."

On Thursday night, he took a huge step toward making it a reality.

Some might call preseason games meaningless. For Welker, this one was anything but.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.