KYLE HIGHTOWER, AP Sports Writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — He’s baaack.
And minus a surprise setback Sunday against Buffalo, it’s almost like Tom Brady never left.
Despite being without their franchise centerpiece for the past month while he served his four-game “Deflategate” suspension, the New England Patriots welcome Brady back on Monday 3-1 after a 16-0 loss to the Bills.
When Brady returns to the Patriots facilities, it will put an official stamp on the 21-month odyssey that has hovered over the franchise since an NFL investigation concluded the Patriots intentionally underinflated footballs used in the AFC Championship game on Jan. 18, 2015.
A federal judge initially overturned the suspension, allowing Brady to play last season, but an appeals court reinstated it this spring. Prior to training camp in July, Brady announced he would end his legal challenges and accept the league’s punishment.
The NFL won that fight, but with a nearly unblemished start to 2016, the Patriots have barely missed a beat.
That’s not to say they haven’t had their trials. New England won games it wasn’t expected to and watched the balance of the AFC East struggle to keep up. It did it all with a roster that has had its issues with health at key positions.
As much as the team has rallied behind Brady understudies Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett the past month, there is also no denying the eagerness in the Patriots’ locker room to see No. 12 back in uniform.
“It’s going to be great,” receiver Julian Edelman said. “It’s one of your best players on the team. A guy that leads us. … Anytime one of your best players isn’t there, there’s something missing.”
The wait is now over.
A recap of the Patriots’ month without Brady:
THE REPLACEMENTS: Neither Garoppolo nor Brissett had made an NFL regular-season start prior to this season. Garoppolo made his debut a memorable one , throwing for 264 yards and a touchdown in New England’s 23-21 road win over the Arizona Cardinals.
Garoppolo was having an even better outing against the Miami Dolphins at home the following week, throwing three touchdown passes, before being knocked out of the game in the second quarter after having his right shoulder slammed into the turf. Brissett took over and helped the Patriots hold on for a 31-24 win .
With Garoppolo’s shoulder still sore, Brissett ran for a touchdown the following week in his first career start in a 27-0 win over the Houston Texans. He tweaked his right thumb in the second half but recovered enough to start Sunday against the Bills, which ended in his first career loss.
GRONK’S SLOW START: Rob Gronkowski hasn’t been himself since suffering a hamstring injury late during training camp. He missed the first two games of the season and has played sparingly since. But he finally broke through with his first reception of the season late in Sunday’s loss. He, too, is looking forward to having Brady’s presence back in the huddle. “I mean, I don’t even have to answer that,” Gronkowski said when asked about Brady’s impact. “You’ve got to give hats off to Jacoby going out there. Much respect to him going out there and doing what he did (Sunday) as a rookie, so hats off to our quarterbacks. They did a tremendous job the first four weeks and obviously it’s exciting to get Tom back.”
INJURIES: Along with the quarterbacks and Gronk, the Patriots continue to deal with a handful of injuries at key positions. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower has been slowed by a knee issue, and guard Jonathan Cooper has yet to play because of a foot issue.
NINKOVICH RETURNS: Brady isn’t the only player the Patriots get back Monday. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich also returns after he received a four-game ban for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances. But there is still a question of how healthy he is after suffering a triceps injury that sidelined him early during training camp.
BLOUNT TO THE RESCUE: Running back LeGarrette Blount was a saving grace for New England’s offense with Brady out. Through three games, he was leading the NFL in rushing with a 99.3 yards per game average. His efforts earned him the AFC’s offensive player of the month award for September. He finished with just 54 yards against Buffalo, but should help take the early pressure off Brady as he eases back in.
UP NEXT: Brady’s first taste of the 2016 regular season will be at Cleveland on Sunday. He returns to Gillette Stadium on Oct. 16 when the Patriots host the Bengals.
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower
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