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Julian Edelman's Patriots return helps spark passing attack

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On a night in which Tom Brady hit a historic milestone and the Patriots climbed over .500, perhaps the biggest storyline was the return of a crucial piece to New England's offensive lineup: Julian Edelman.

Fans throughout Gillette Stadium held up handmade signs welcoming back the 5-foot-10 receiver, who missed the first four games of the season due to suspension and lost the entire 2017 campaign to a knee injury. Brady wasted little time getting his longtime teammate back into the mix, dialing up No. 11 on the first play of Thursday's matchup against a depleted Colts team for a 9-yard gain. Although Edelman finished with just 57 receiving yards, he was targeted nine times (second to running back James White), and his presence on the field for 48 snaps opened up opportunities for the rest of the Patriots' pass catchers.

"It was good to get out there and catch some rocks and go out and make some plays and be with the fellas," Edelman told reporters after the Patriots' 38-24 win. "I haven't played football in, I think, like 405 days or something like that. It was good to be out there in front of the crowd -- they were rocking, they were awesome."

That Edelman would look sharp after not playing in meaningful game action in what was actually 606 days was not a surprise to any of his teammates.

"Yeah, you can take us away from each other for 10 years and we'll come back and we'll be the same, we'll be right back at it," tight end Rob Gronkowski told reporters after the game. "Probably need to knock off the rust after a couple practices, but it just shows that we've been working together for a long time, we all understand each other, and understand how we play. And it's great to have that comfort level."

Two-time Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty said he knew Edelman would come back and be himself.

"He lightens the mood. He's energetic. He's talking trash," McCourty said. "It was funny seeing him in here pregame, hitting a couple sets on the squat [rack]."

Cornerback Jonathan Jones echoed McCourty's sentiments, saying he didn't see anything during practice that suggested Edelman wouldn't be the same consistent player from his first snap.

"[Edelman] brings the juice. He's one of the leaders [of our team]," Jones said. "He's a competitor -- this isn't his first rodeo. He knows what he needs to do to play good ball, and he's doing it."

The Patriots played great ball to start the game, with Brady completing his first 10 passes. When the future Hall of Famer (34-of-44 passing for 341 yards with four total TDs and two picks) wasn't targeting White (10 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown), he was relying on Edelman to pick up tough yards underneath on option routes -- a successful formula that has worked incredibly well for New England over the years. On Thursday, the Patriots improved to 47-9 when Edelman takes the field in a span going back to 2013 (they are just 19-10 when he doesn't).

Still, despite earning another conference win, the Patriots committed too many self-inflicted wounds Thursday night -- a dropped Edelman pass that stalled an early drive, multiple miscommunications between Josh Gordon and Brady, dropped passes from Chris Hogan and Gronkowski that led to interceptions -- and nearly allowed an injury-riddled Colts team to mount a comeback. The mental mistakes serve as a useful reminder that, as good as this offense looks at times, and as good as it may be on paper, it is not yet where it needs to be to consistently take on some of the AFC's more dominant defenses.

White offered a laundry list of items the offense needs to address going forward.

"Not turning the ball over -- I think that's the biggest thing," said White, who has a team-high four touchdown catches on the season. "We have to do a better job of catching [the ball] and protecting the ball. It's not all Tom's fault. And not taking our foot of the gas, especially like how we did in the third quarter."

One area White didn't mention is the team's deep passing game, which had been awful going into the contest. Per Next Gen Stats, Brady had connected on just one of 14 passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air before hitting two of three Thursday night, including his 500th career touchdown pass, a 34-yard jump ball to Gordon that landed Brady in an extremely exclusive club: only Brady, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have 500 touchdown passes. There's plenty of reason to think that when the Brady-Gordon connection gets going, there will be better matchups all around for Edelman, White and Gronkowski.

Having contributed to his first win in nearly two years, Edelman was understandably in good spirits afterward and willing to address -- albeit in Patriot-like fashion -- a report that surfaced before the game about what he did during his suspension.

When asked whether he worked out with the Boston Celtics during his four weeks away from the team and engaged in competitive Ping-Pong games with Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, Edelman said only, "I worked out in Brighton with some tall guys. I'll leave it at that."

Then he joked: "Tell Gordon easy on the Ping-Pong talk."

After sputtering out of the gate for the second straight season, the Patriots (3-2) are now 23-2 during Weeks 5-17 since 2016. Three of the last six times they started 2-2 or worse in the Brady era, they won the Super Bowl.

And we'll leave it at that.

Follow Ali Bhanpuri on Twitter @AliBhanpuri.

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