FOXBOROUGH -- So much for Wes Welker’s disappearing act.
For the Patriots first two games, his playing time mysteriously dropped. In the three weeks since then, he’s been on the field for more snaps than any other wide receiver in the NFL.
His comedy routine didn’t last long either -- just a one-night stand.
The New England star backtracked about 12 hours after saying on Comcast Sportsnet, with a wink and a smile, that he enjoyed catching 13 passes against Denver last Sunday to "stick it" in coach Bill Belichick’s face.
"It was a joke," he insisted on Monday, trying to defuse the issue before the team began preparing for Sunday’s game at the Seattle Seahawks. "I’ll make sure to keep that in-house going forward."
Now Welker is back where he’s been for most of his career with the Patriots, at center stage of one of the league’s most dangerous passing attacks.
"The dude is fast," Broncos linebacker Joe Mays said after the Patriots’ 31-21 win. "He is definitely one of the best slot men in the game, if not the best. What can I say? The dude definitely made plays and we didn’t."
Injuries that have sidelined tight end Aaron Hernandez for three games and wide receiver Julian Edelman for two gave Welker a shot at increased playing time. Would it have gone up anyway? Tough to say, but Hernandez ran hard during practice on Wednesday and could be back against the Seahawks.
Belichick has seen improvement in Edelman and might want to give him more experience knowing that Welker could be gone once his contract expires after this season.
Whatever his reasons, Belichick hasn’t said why Welker played only 70.5 percent of the offensive snaps in the first two games. Since then, he’s played 91.1 percent, sitting out just 23 of 257 offensive plays, bringing his total to 83.5 percent for the season.
Welker has had 49 passes thrown his way, tied for seventh among wide receivers and just eight behind leader Reggie Wayne of the Indianapolis Colts.
The 5-foot-9 speedster may be as dangerous as ever, catching short passes over the middle and swerving around bigger defenders for extra yardage.
Welker led the NFL with 122 receptions last season and with 554 since joining the Patriots in 2007. Despite a slow start this year, he’s tied for second with 38 catches. He has 30 in his last three games, gaining more than 100 yards in each of them.
Against Denver, he scored the first touchdown of the game on an 8-yard pass from Tom Brady and did his usual solid job blocking for other receivers.
"He’s the same Wes Welker that I’ve played with every year that I’ve been here," said wide receiver Matthew Slater, a rookie with the Patriots in 2008. "The guy puts so much into his craft. He really works at it and he’s an example to the other guys in that receiving room and the other guys on that offense."