FOXBOROUGH — In the Patriots’ locker room, if a player isn’t currently with the team but his stall is kept intact, it’s a pretty good sign that he’ll be back.
As it was with Deion Branch.
The veteran receiver still had a nameplate and practice clothes in his locker (which is next to Tom Brady’s) when he returned to Gillette Stadium on Wednesday, nearly a month after he had been released after suffering a hamstring injury.
Because of that, it always seemed like a matter of when Branch would come back, not if.
“I expected that, but anything can happen,’’ he said. “The team had to do what was best for them. Everything works out for a reason,” he said. “I think in this case, it worked out in the right way.”
After Julian Edelman suffered a season-ending hip injury in Miami, the Patriots brought back Donte’ Stallworth, but his season came to an end Monday night when he suffered an ankle injury at the tail end of his 63-yard touchdown reception.
“I’m stepping in as if I never left,’’ he said. “I’m here to just do whatever guys need me to do, whatever Tom needs me to do on offense, whatever my team needs me to do. That’s my job.”
Branch, 33, said he missed the game while he was away, watching the Patriots on television. But he was able to play a little armchair coach, able to recognize what plays were working and ones the offense still needs to work on.
Though he’s been released twice and re-signed twice this season, Branch harbors no ill will, saying it’s part of the business and that Bill Belichick is always straightforward.
As if to underscore the idea that everyone knew all along Branch would eventually make a return, he said nothing special happened when it was official.
“All the guys just walk past my locker like nothing ever happened. So I didn’t get any hugs or anything like that,” he said. “Just like, ‘How you doing? What’s up?’ Just another day, man. That’s what happens in this business.
“Nothing’s changed around here. The guys are the same. They’re still winning. That’s good and I’m just glad to be back.”
Wait and see
Cornerback Aqib Talib was limited during practice Thursday because of a hip injury suffered Monday night, but he said he is doing everything he can to make sure he’s ready for San Francisco on Sunday.
“I’m all right, it’s just a day-to-day injury,” he said. “Just working hard three times a day [rehabbing], trying to get healthy.”
Talib was injured late in the first half against the Texans, though he doesn’t remember exactly how it happened.
When Stephen Gostkowski was unable to accept the Boston Pops’ invitation to serve as a guest conductor because of a family commitment, Zoltan Mesko was more than happy to step in.
The affable punter, who said that as an alto saxophone player in high school in Ohio he would perform at halftime with the band — in his football uniform — said it was a fun experience.
“I had some teammates with me — Nate Solder, Ryan Wendell, and Danny Aiken — and we put on a little improv act; Danny snapped me the ball and I faked it to [conductor] Keith Lockhart,” Mesko said.
“We thought of a little skit that I didn’t have coattails, and I brought some construction paper, and when we started playing the ‘Sleigh Ride’ song and it kind of fell apart, I ordered them to stop . . . and I said, ‘Something’s not right,’ and then Keith Lockhart came out with the ‘coattails’ and taped them on my suit and then we went along with it [the song].”
Mesko said he’d love to be a guest conductor again, but joked he’s “oversaturated the market” with his conducting.
Other than the return of Kyle Love to practice — the defensive tackle and wife Constance welcomed their first child, a son, on Wednesday afternoon — there were no changes to New England’s Thursday injury report. Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip) did not practice, and there were 17 players listed as limited, including cornerbacks Talib, Kyle Arrington (knee), and Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring). Brandon Spikes (knee/ankle) was riding a stationary bike and talking to Belichick during the media access portion of practice, while his teammates did the usual dynamic warm-up.