Seven months after injuring his left knee, Wes Welker made his return to the New England Patriots on Thursday night in Atlanta, and Tom Brady, the quarterback, wasted no time going to his favourite receiver. On New England's second play, Brady zipped a six-yard pass to Welker. On the next play, they hooked up on a 14-yard completion. A third consecutive pass toward Welker was broken up by the Falcons, but the message was clear - the NFL's most prolific pass-catcher over the past three years is back.
"Getting out there catching balls and getting hit was good," said Welker, who had 346 catches during that span before being injured in January. "It's a step forward. I'm not sure I'm all there yet." Brady threw for a touchdown and Fred Taylor ran for a score to lead the Patriots past the Falcons 28-10, giving them a 2-0 record in the pre-season. The Falcons have plenty of weapons on offence, but upgrading the defence is considered the key to Atlanta challenging New Orleans, the Super Bowl champions, in the NFC South.
The most glaring shortcoming for their defence was their inability to top New England on third down plays. The Patriots were 11 of 17 in those situations. "That was our Achilles' heel the previous season, and that's something we've got to get fixed," Mike Smith, the Atlanta coach, said. "I know it's only the pre-season, but we didn't play as well as we need to. We've got a lot of work to do." The Patriots seemed to get the most benefit from travelling south early to hold joint practices with the Falcons. "It was a good trip," Bill Belichick, the coach, said. "We played well as a team."
* Associated Press