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Counting down Southwest Georgia’s Top 10 sports stories of 2012 — #2: Third trip to Super Bowl highlights Monroe grad Branch’s year

Albany native Deion Branch was released twice by the Patriots in 2012 — on Aug. 31 and again on Nov. 17 — but the Monroe grad re-signed with the team less than a month after each time he was released and will likely be a key part of New England’s playoff run.

Albany native Deion Branch was released twice by the Patriots in 2012 — on Aug. 31 and again on Nov. 17 — but the Monroe grad re-signed with the team less than a month after each time he was released and will likely be a key part of New England’s playoff run.

Entering the year, Deion Branch already held the distinction of being the only Albany native to play in a Super Bowl.

In 2012, he padded that achievement by reaching his third, once again with the New England Patriots.

Branch, the Monroe High School alum and former Louisville star who was drafted in the second round in 2002 by the Pats, won his first Super Bowl ring in 2004 when New England beat the Carolina Panthers, then the Patriots repeated in 2005 with a victory against Philadelphia — a game that ended up cementing Branch’s name in NFL lore. Branch caught 11 passes — tying Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl record — and was named the MVP.

After a brief departure from the Patriots, Branch returned in 2010 — and it was no coincidence that a year later, they were back in the Super Bowl.

Despite a slightly diminished role in his second stint in Foxborough — Branch was the fourth-leading wideout on the team during the 2011-12 season with 51 catches for 702 yards and five TDs — he continued to be one of quarterback Tom Brady’s most trusted and reliable targets and caught three balls for 45 yards in his third trip to the Big Game. Unfortunately for those rooting Branch on back home in Albany, the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, denying Branch a third ring.

At age 33, Branch could’ve easily called it a career — and retired worthy of HOF consideration — but when the Pats came calling again this season, Branch returned for his 11th year and even caught a pass on a big third-down play in Sunday’s 28-0 win against the Miami Dolphins to help the Patriots clinch a first-round playoff bye — once again — with another likely deep playoff run awaiting Branch, who has caught 15 passes this season for 129 yards, and New England in 2013.

And that’s why Branch’s appearance in his third Super Bowl and continued success at the highest level of pro football is The Herald’s No. 2 story of 2012.