Tom Brady is back. Finally, Deflategate is over. And perhaps most importantly, Brady's official revenge tour around the NFL is set to begin Sunday.
For the first time since the preseason, the Patriots will be led by arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. For the first time since January 2015, Deflategate isn't a story. And for the first time since ... well, last season, Brady will embark upon yet another "middle finger" to the NFL campaign, as my colleague John Breech so eloquently put it the other day.
That's a lot to process. So, here is everything you need to know about Brady's return.
Since Deflategate is actually over -- this time it actually is -- let's spend a moment to remember the scandal that just would not die. Seriously, Deflategate was one improbable revival away from being cast in the next season of Game of Thrones.
The scandal began in January 2015, when news broke that the Patriots used under-inflated footballs during their 45-7 victory against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. Accusations were made, the Patriots -- including Brady -- denied those accusations, and the NFL hired Ted Wells to investigate the claims.
PSI levels were debated. Bill Belichick basically held a science lecture instead of a press conference. Bill Nye even weighed in.
Two weeks later, the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl under the guidance of Belichick and Brady. But the scandal still loomed.
For the reasons described in this Report, and after a comprehensive investigation, we have concluded that, in connection with the AFC Championship Game, it is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the Playing Rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules.
Brady was hit with a four-game suspension, and the Patriots were docked a first-round and fourth-round draft pick, and $1 million. Patriots owner Robert Kraft reluctantly decided to accept those penalties, but Brady didn't.
And so, Part II began: The appeal phase, which lasted until this offseason. While all of that was happening, Brady threw for 36 touchdowns and only seven picks, but the Patriots fell short in the AFC Championship Game.
Back to the appeals: Brady won his first court appeal and was allowed to play during the season. But the NFL appealed Brady's appeal and won. Brady responded by appealing the NFL's appeal of his appeal. He lost. Instead of trying to take the case to the Supreme Court, Brady gave up.
And that's why he has been absent since the beginning of the season.
2. Since you've been gone
Surprise, surprise. Even without Brady, Belichick managed to guide his team to a 3-1 record, which means now is a perfect time to remind everyone, again: NEVER BET AGAINST BELICHICK.
In the Patriots' season opener, they took out the Cardinals in Arizona. Jimmy Garoppolo started that game and wound up posting a 106.1 passer rating in his first-ever NFL start. The final score? 23-21.
Garoppolo kept the magic going in the second game of the season, throwing a touchdown on the Patriots' first three drives against the Dolphins. But disaster struck before halftime, when Garoppolo sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder. He did not take another snap, but the Patriots hung on to beat the Dolphins, 31-24.
So, enter rookie Jacoby Brissett, who faced a tough Texans team in his first career start. He wasn't really needed; the Patriots defense pitched a shutout. Brissett mostly managed the game and scored with his legs to provide the Patriots with enough offense. They won, 27-0.
But Brissett also suffered a thumb injury doing that game. So, the Patriots were out of quarterbacks heading into their Week 4 contest against the Bills. The idea of using Julian Edelman was even floated.
Rex Ryan desperately wanted to know what was going to happen. So, he posed as a reporter.
New media member "Walt Patulski from the Buffalo News" jumps in with a hard-hitting question for Julian Edelman. 🤔 pic.twitter.com/mBHrzIDeSx— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) September 28, 2016
We had to break the news of the Patriots' loss to Ben Affleck yesterday. pic.twitter.com/CUeZLPMXKu— SI Extra Mustard (@SI_ExtraMustard) October 3, 2016
Still, there's no way anyone can look at the Patriots' four-week stretch sans Brady and say it wasn't a success.
This was an unmitigated success. The Patriots are 3-1 and are leading the AFC East, all without Brady. In other words, it's just Belichick doing Belichickian things, again.
3. Meanwhile, on Brady's day off ...
Here's how Brady spent his rare free time: He watched Red Zone, like every other football fan.
Finally, he moved off his couch to serve as Michigan's honorary captain and play catch with Jim Harbaugh.
He also played catch with his wife, Gisele Bundchen.
They then went to Italy:
Last weekend, TMZ acquired footage of what appeared to be Brady throwing at a high school. So, he was also getting ready.
4. When will we hear from him?
Unfortunately, we won't be able to confirm if that's actually him in the grainy videos, because the quarterback probably won't speak with the media until after Sunday's game. But hey, at least we get Gronk and can maybe get some answers about his ailing hamstring.
Media note: Present plan is for Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski to take the place of the traditional QB news conference on Wednesday (11:45 a.m.)— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) October 4, 2016
Brady did, however, speak with with Jim Gray on Westwood One's "Monday Night Football" pregame show. Here's what he said, according to The Boston Herald:
"It was great to be back in the building," Brady said on an interview with Jim Gray on Westwood One's Monday Night Football pregame show. "It was certainly great to be back to work. It's been a long four weeks for me, but I'm excited to get started on my preparation for Cleveland. I'm anxious for the week ahead. I want to get back on the practice field. It's what I love to do, and now I have an opportunity to do it."
And while Brady did his best to avoid commenting on Deflategate, Gray coaxed a little fire out of the three-time Super Bowl MVP when the interviewer asked if the whole affair put the type of chip on the quarterback's shoulder that began with being passed over by so many teams in the 2000 NFL draft.
"Well, Jim, you want to reflect a lot tonight," Brady said. "Jim, I was motivated 17 years ago (when he was drafted 199th overall) and I'm motivated today. So, I'm motivated to win for my teammates. I'm motivated to go out there and represent our city well. None of that's changed."
Translation: I'm going to wreck this league, again.
5. What are his coaches, teammates saying?
This is the Patriots, so we aren't going to learn much by listening to Brady's teammates and coaches talk about his arrival. The most anyone said was offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels concluding that Brady "looks ready to go."
The best quote, though, belonged to receiver Matthew Slater.
Matthew Slater (re: Tom Brady return): "We're excited to have Thomas back, but our responsibility and our jobs are still the same." #thomas— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) October 3, 2016
That's not Tom Brady. That's Thomas Brady.
6. His first test
In his first game back, Brady will have the luxury of going up against the winless Browns, who will most likely serve as the perfect warmup foe for him. After all, the Browns are the Browns.
Except, as ESPN's Adam Schefter pointed out, the Patriots haven't always played well against the Browns.
Browns and Patriots have played twice in past five years - it has not gone as you'd think, per ESPN stats & info. pic.twitter.com/GZSjYmv8Lb— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 4, 2016
Brady's numbers against the Browns in six career games? A 59.42 completion percentage, 1,541 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions, and an 87.4 passer rating.
That's all fine and well, but it doesn't change this fact: the Browns stink. They're ranked in the bottom half of the league in terms of points and yards allowed, and 25th in defensive DVOA. Brady might be rusty and the game might be on the road, but he's still Tom Brady.
Complicating matters is the status of Gronkowski, who has been dealing with a lingering hamstring issue. Though he has played in the past two games, he has been targeted only three times, catching one pass for 11 yards. So no, Gronk does not look like Gronk.
Perhaps, though, the Patriots were easing Gronk into action with Brissett as his quarterback. Maybe, now that Brady is back, Gronk will be back in full force, too. That's something to monitor on Sunday, because if Gronk is still limited, then it might be officially time to worry about the league's most dangerous weapon.
Regardless, it's time to sit back and enjoy the return of the league's best quarterback (and hope that your favorite team doesn't stand between him and the Lombardi Trophy, because you know he's gunning for it).
You can catch the game on CBS at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.