FOXBOROUGH — The last time Wes Welker faced the Houston Texans was not a day he cares to remember. That was the day, in the 2009 regular-season finale, when Welker tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee as he was running with the ball on his first reception of the afternoon.
“I try not to think about it too much — appreciate you bringing it up,” Welker joked to a reporter on Friday. “I’ve just moved on from it and worked hard and tried to get better and luckily I’m where I’m at today.”
Welker underwent surgery in February 2010 and made a surprisingly fast return, participating in minicamp and training camp and starting the first game of the season.
He finished the season with 86 receptions, the lowest total of his six-year Patriots career, but a more than respectable season.
Asked if the injury was the lowest point of his career, Welker said he doesn’t think about the past much.
As he faces the Texans again, Welker leads the league in receptions with 92. When/if he gets to 100, he will become the first player in NFL history with five seasons of 100 or more receptions.
That’s after a game against his former team, Miami, in which Welker set a league record for the most 10-catch, 100-yard games with 16, passing Jerry Rice and the Texans’ Andre Johnson. He also tied Rice’s NFL mark with his 17th career game of 10 or more receptions.
After the win against the Dolphins, Tom Brady once again sang Welker’s praises as one of his best friends and a receiver “quarterbacks dream about.”
“It means a lot,” to have Brady feel that way, Welker said. “He’s our leader and our guy, he’s been here so long and done such a great job, and you want to gain the respect of your teammates and go out there and play for those guys and make sure that we’re all pulling on the same rope and trying to make things happen.”
Welker is on pace for 123 catches this season, which would tie the career best he set in 2009.
There’s been a great deal said about the Texans on offense and defense, but New England special teams captain Matthew Slater knows Houston’s special teams unit is strong as well.
Rookie returner Keshawn Martin, who inherited duties on both kickoffs and punts after the team released Trindon Holliday after Week 5, is fourth in the league in punt-return average at 14.3 yards, and 21st in kickoff returns (24.1).
“He has great balance, he has a great feel for what he’s doing out there, he makes great decisions, he runs aggressive, he runs hard,’’ said Slater.
“They have a good core group of guys that are blocking for him and they’re well-coached on top of that. Definitely be one of the better units we’ve faced this season and it’s going to be tough.”
Slater could be headed to another Pro Bowl; he had three tackles in Miami, taking down punter Brandon Fields after he tried to run with a bad snap, giving the Patriots the ball 12 yards from the end zone and leading to their first touchdown.
Slater leads the team with 17 special-teams tackles.
If, as expected, Chandler Jones returns Monday night, Rob Ninkovich will be back at left defensive end, which means he’ll be lined up opposite right tackle Duane Brown, who’s listed at 6 feet 4 inches, 320 pounds.
“He’s a big boy, so I’ll have to do a good job of getting his hands off me,’’ said Ninkovich, who is listed at 6-2, 260. “I think he’s only given up one sack all year, so I just have to do my best to not let him clamp me. Because he’s a big guy, he likes to pretty much maul everybody he’s going against, so I’ll try to keep off him and use my agility to my advantage.”
A second-team All-Pro selection last year, Brown signed a six-year contract extension during training camp.
None were expected, but there were no fines issued by the league from infractions in the Patriots-Dolphins game. What was unexpected, however, was Miami defensive tackle Tony McDaniel finding fault with New England’s clock-eating, end-of-game drive, when Stevan Ridley got the ball 10 times and Shane Vereen once. “It was disrespectful to us to run the same play over and over and be successful,” McDaniel told the Palm Beach Post. Teammate Randy Starks offered a less head-scratching answer: “It is disrespectful. But you’ve got to stop it. We never stopped it, so I’d keep running the same play, too.” . . . There was only one player who did not participate in Friday’s practice: Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip). Offensive lineman Nick McDonald (shoulder) was back after not practicing Thursday.