New England Patriots wide receivers Wes Welker (83) and Deion Branch (84) stretch during practice at the NFL football team's facility in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- 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.
"The guy's a true professional in every sense of the word in how he prepares. He plays the game the right way. He practices the right way. And he takes care of his body the right way. He just does so many things the right way and the guys around here really appreciate and respect him for that."
That dedication showed after the 2009 season when he worked diligently at recovering from torn knee ligaments suffered in the last regular season game. He was back in time for the next season. Although he had just 86 catches, the fewest in his five full seasons with the Patriots, he played in 15 games while working to get back to full speed.
Last year he posted career highs of 1,569 yards receiving and nine touchdowns.
But Welker had another uncertain offseason this year. He and the Patriots couldn't reach agreement on a long-term contract, which might have left him with a bitter taste. He accepted the team's franchise tag and the $9.5 million salary that goes with it, but with Hernandez and Edelman showing the ability to play slot receiver, this could be Welker's last season in New England at age 31.
If it is, he'll leave 'em laughing.
Publicly, Welker speaks slowly with a poker face and an Oklahoma drawl. Behind the scenes, he's the class clown.
"I'm on the receiving end of a lot of his jokes," Brady said. "He's got a great personality. He works so hard and he likes to keep things light. He's a little bit of a jokester. Not only that, he's a great football player. His jokes don't go over very well if he's not playing well."
His one-liner probably didn't get a rave review from Belichick.
Welker wouldn't say if his coach talked with him about his remark after Sunday's game but doesn't think Belichick will punish him, perhaps by keeping him on the bench for the Patriots' first offensive series against the Seahawks.
That's what Belichick did in the 2011 divisional playoff game against the Jets after Welker made mocking comments about New York coach Rex Ryan.
CBS said during the game broadcast that Welker was being punished for a news conference in which he made about a dozen references to toes and feet, a not-so-subtle reference to foot-fetish reports involving Ryan. The Jets won 28-21 and Belichick said after the game "I don't have any comment" on why Welker didn't start.
He was equally secretive about Welker's diminished role in the first two games this year, but Slater said it wasn't a big issue.
"It was never talked about amongst the players," he said. "We don't really put focus on that kind of thing, on who's getting the ball. We just go out and do what we're asked to do and plays will come your way."
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