NEW YORK -- The NFL has suspended Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady without pay for the first four games of the season, fined the New England Patriots $1 million and taken away two draft picks as punishment for deflating footballs used in the AFC title game, the league said in a statement Monday.
The NFL also indefinitely suspended the two equipment staffers believed to have carried out the plan, including one who called himself "The Deflator."
He will return the week the Patriots face the Colts in Indianapolis.
The Patriots will also lose a first-round pick in 2016 and a fourth-round pick in 2017.
In a statement released Monday night, Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft criticized the investigation on which the punishment was based and said Brady had the team's "unconditional support" and that its "belief in him has not wavered."
"Despite our conviction that there was no tampering with footballs, it was our intention to accept any discipline levied by the league," Kraft said. "Today's punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation. It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.
"We are humbled by the support the New England Patriots have received from our fans throughout the world," the statement said. "We recognize our fans' concerns regarding the NFL's penalties and share in their disappointment in how this one-sided investigation was handled, as well as the dismissal of the scientific evidence supported by the Ideal Gas Law in the final report."
On Tuesday morning, the Patriots changed their Twitter avatar to Brady's No. 12 jersey.
Brady's agent said Monday that he would appeal the suspension to commissioner Roger Goodell, which the quarterback has three days to do.
Brady will be replaced by Jimmy Garoppolo, a 2014 second-round selection from Eastern Illinois who won the Walter Payton award as the best player in the FCS. He has thrown 27 NFL passes, including one touchdown.
Brady's agent, Don Yee, said "the discipline is ridiculous and has no legitimate basis."
"And if the hearing officer is completely independent and neutral, I am very confident the Wells report will be exposed as an incredibly frail exercise in fact-finding and logic," Yee said in a statement.
The Patriots also postponed on Monday this week's previously scheduled media availability with their rookie draft class.
The punishment was announced five days after the release of the lengthy Wells report that found that Patriots personnel deliberately deflated footballs before the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 18, 2015, and that Brady "was at least generally aware" of the violations.
"With respect to your particular involvement, the report established that there is substantial and credible evidence to conclude you were at least generally aware of the actions of the Patriots' employees involved in the deflation of the footballs and that it was unlikely that their actions were done without your knowledge," NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent wrote in a letter to Brady.
The 243-page report by league-appointed attorney Ted Wells said it was "more probable than not" that Brady was aware of plans to prepare the footballs to his liking, below the NFL-mandated minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch.
The report identified two Patriots employees -- officials' locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant John Jastremski -- as the ones who executed the plan. The Patriots suspended both indefinitely last week. Neither can be reinstated without the approval of the NFL, the league said.
Reaction in the NFL was widespread in the aftermath of the news.
Suzanne Johnson, wife of Jets owner Woody Johnson, tweeted the Brady news alongside a happy-face emoji before quickly deleting the tweet.
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount tweeted his objections to the discipline, while San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Darnell Dockett also used it as an opportunity to take a jab at New England.
THIS IS ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS!!! SMH 😡 #PATSNATION STAND UP!!!!!
— LeGarrette Blount (@LG_Blount) May 11, 2015
You have to the love the patriots . They do anything to win a Super Bowl . #mytypeofteam😊
— DARNELL DOCKETT (@ddockett) May 11, 2015
"Obviously if he's accused and obviously yeah -- the football -- I think it is about integrity and you have to follow the rules," Manning said. "And so if someone's breaking rules, I understand you're going to get punished for it."
Manning called the discipline "a pretty big statement."
"And obviously the NFL is serious about not messing with the integrity of the game, no matter how big or little the issue is," Manning said.
The Patriots' fine matches the largest the NFL has handed out, to Ed DeBartolo Jr., then the San Francisco 49ers' owner, who pleaded guilty to a felony in his role in a Louisiana gambling scandal in 1999.
Vincent told the Patriots the punishment was handed out regardless of whether the flatter footballs affected the outcome of the blowout win over the Colts. Vincent said the flattening of balls probably began much earlier.
"The activities of the Patriots' employees were thoroughly documented in the report, including through a series of text messages and telephone communications, as well as evidence of a breach in pre-game protocol," Vincent wrote in a letter to the Patriots. "In addition, the conclusions were supported by extensive scientific analysis, as detailed in the report."
It is the second time in eight years that the Patriots have been punished for violating league rules.
In 2007, the team was fined $500,000 and docked a first-round draft pick, and coach Bill Belichick was fined $250,000 for videotaping opposing coaches as a way to decipher their play signals.
Brady has repeatedly stated that he did not know about the efforts to deflate the game balls, but Wells' report found those claims "not plausible and contradicted by other evidence."
Yee said last week that the report contains "significant and tragic flaws" and suggested that the NFL cooperated in a "sting operation" with the Indianapolis Colts, who had alerted the league of their suspicions of the Patriots' use of underinflated footballs.
The Patriots' odds for winning another championships dropped from 7-1 to 10-1, according to the Glantz-Culver line.
Las Vegas sports books responded by reopening the Patriots as 2-point favorites over the Steelers for the kickoff game. New England was a 6-point favorite over Pittsburgh when the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook first posted point spreads on April 22.
Las Vegas sports book operator CG Technology trimmed the line to Patriots minus-1, and William Hill went with New England minus-2.5. The over/under total dropped from 53 to 49 at most books.
New England defeated Indianapolis 45-7 in the AFC title game before beating the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl two weeks later.
Brady said last week the scandal hasn't taken away from the team's Super Bowl win -- its fourth NFL title since the 2001 season.
"Absolutely not," he said at a previously planned appearance in Salem, Massachusetts, last Thursday night. "We earned everything we got and achieved as a team, and I am proud of that and so are our fans."
Fans chanted "Brady" and "MVP," then gave him a standing ovation as he entered the arena in the town made famous by the colonial witch trials. Since the airing of the scandal in the hours after the Colts game, New England fans have been unwavering in their support for the team, blaming the investigation on grudges by opponents jealous of the team's success.
The NFL allows each team to provide the footballs used by its offense -- a procedure Brady played a role in creating -- but it requires them to be inflated in that range of 12.5-13.5 pounds per square inch. Footballs with less pressure can be easier to grip and catch, and Brady has expressed a preference for the lower end of the range.
Information from The Associated Press, ESPN.com's David Purdum and ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini contributed to this report.