Wes Welker returns from knee injury

ATLANTA -- New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker suited up for Thursday night's 28-10 preseason victory against the Atlanta Falcons and played for the first time since injuring his knee in January.

Welker was on the field for six snaps on the Patriots' opening drive. He caught a 6-yard pass on his first play back. On his second play, he was on the receiving end of a 14-yard pass from quarterback Tom Brady that gave the Patriots a first down.

Both plays were over the middle and Welker was tackled both times. Welker was targeted on the third play, as well, but was hit hard on a receiver screen that was incomplete.

He finished the first drive -- and the game -- with those two catches for 20 yards.

"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' victory 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."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game that he knows of no player who works as hard as Welker, and he described Welker's 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."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.