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Branch’s big game keeps Patriots rolling

Deion Branch has 45 catches this season, and the veteran WR is still a valuable target for QB Tom Brady.

Deion Branch has 45 catches this season, and the veteran WR is still a valuable target for QB Tom Brady.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady pointed with his left index finger. Deion Branch picked up the signal and changed his route. The result was a 63-yard pass play.

On a team with star receivers Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, Branch and Brady have a special chemistry that makes the New England Patriots offense even more dangerous.

The long connection came early in the second quarter of the Patriots’ 38-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Branch ran out of gas and was tackled at the Eagles 1-yard line, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for the touchdown on the next play. Suddenly, the Patriots had a 14-10 lead and never trailed again.

Branch finished with six catches for 125 yards, one of his best games of the season.

“Deion is a very instinctive receiver,” coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “He has a great sense of timing, of when the quarterback is ready to throw the ball, when he needs to be open, how to get open. Tom, from his position, kind of has that same sense of what the receiver would expect him to do and what he should do in certain situations and that’s almost always what Deion would do.”

The Patriots improved to 8-3, tied for the best record in the AFC. They should improve on that Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts (0-11) visit. New England has scored the most points in the AFC. Indianapolis has allowed the most in the NFL.

So the Patriots, who have dominated their last three opponents, figure to do that again.

Belichick, though, likely will emphasize the strengths of the Colts, not the season-long absence of Peyton Manning.

“Schematically, (the Colts) look pretty much the same as they usually do,” he said. “Obviously, a couple of changes in personnel, but a team we always have trouble with.”

Eight of the Colts losses have been by more than seven points. The Patriots have the passing game to win by a lot more than that.

At the start of the season, Welker and Gronkowski were the big producers. In the first three games, Welker had 31 catches for 458 yards and Gronkowski scored five touchdowns. Branch started off well with 15 catches for 222 yards in the first two games but managed just a total of one in the next two.

Welker leads the NFL with 82 receptions and Gronkowski is tied for fifth with 60 and second with 11 touchdown catches. Even tight end Aaron Hernandez, with 47 receptions, is ahead of Branch’s 45.

But Branch can still help Brady turn a broken play into a big one.

On Sunday, Brady threw for the first time in his career to a wide-open Tiquan Underwood, who had just been signed. The receiver couldn’t latch onto the ball.

“It would have been a tough play,” Belichick said. “It could have been a little better executed all the way around. I thought he ran a good route. The ball was a little inside.”

On the very next play, Brady turned to a receiver he has plenty of experience with — Branch.

The quarterback scrambled to his left as Branch ran 13 yards down the left sideline and stopped at the first-down marker.

That’s when Brady pointed. That was Branch’s cue to cut inside cornerback Brandon Hughes, who played more because cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was limited by a knee injury.

Branch caught it at the Eagles’ 45 and nearly went all the way.

“It wasn’t a play that I made,” he said. “It was a play that (Brady) made with his feet.”

Brady isn’t known for his speed, but he’s good at escaping the rush.

“I think just about anybody who would evaluate Tom would say he’s probably got as good a pocket presence as just about any quarterback,” Belichick said. “He has very good pocket awareness and quickness in the pocket in a short space. I think that’s one of his big strengths.”

Brady and Branch were teammates for five years before the receiver was traded to the Seattle Seahawks before the 2006 season in a contract dispute. The Patriots reacquired him after their fourth game last year and he finished with 48 catches for 706 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games for them.

“You have two smart guys, both very instinctive players, that if something comes up that you haven’t done or talked about before, I’d say both of them probably would do the right thing,” Belichick said. “Or what you would want them to do if you haven’t told them what to do.

“Certainly, the experience and reps they’ve had together (in) practice, games and walkthroughs and talking about situations and talking about things that come up, I’m sure that’s all added to it. And of course, actually going out there and doing it on the field in live game situations, under pressure, adds to it as well.”