Flashing that winning, glowing smile he’s become famous for, Monroe alum and Albany native Deion Branch jokes with throngs of reporters earlier this week as the Patriots opened practice in preparation for next Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Giants. This will be Branch’s third career Big Game with New England.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Deion Branch’s MVP trophy he earned in Super Bowl XXXIX with the New England Patriots sits in a glass case in his home. He relishes it. He shows it to his kids once and awhile. And every now and again, he talks about it.
But not this week. He won’t.
Because that’s in the past. And in just seven days against the New York Giants — a game that will mark the third career Super Bowl for the Albany native and former Monroe High School star — he’ll have a chance at another.
“(I don’t think about it that much). Not really, because I’m still playing, and the hunger is there to come in with the same goal,” Branch told NESN Boston earlier this week. “For us to have the opportunity to play in this special game, this special event, it’s a blessing.
“The reason why I’m playing is for this moment right here, to have the opportunity to be in these type of games, to be around these type of guys in the locker room, to go out and share this moment with them. I think when I’m done playing, I can sit back and reminisce on this stuff and brag to my kids about it.”
What a career it’s been.
In his 10th year in the NFL, Branch has become one of the best receivers the game has ever seen — especially in the Big One. His 21 total catches for 276 yards in his first two Super Bowls with New England — 2004 and 2005, both of them ending in a ring — ranks him third all-time in league history behind two other pretty good wideouts you may have heard of: Jerry Rice (33 catches) and Andre Reed (27).
And the most amazing part is this: He doesn’t appear to be slowing down, even at 32 — an age that often marks the end of careers for most NFL receivers.
But not Branch, who just keeps on ticking ... and catching ... and scoring touchdowns.
“I think overall now, the knowledge of the game is there. (Before, early in my career) I was just running around playing off raw ability,’’ Branch told The Boston Globe in an interview Friday. “I’ve always prided myself on knowing my opponents, being a smart player, knowing what I’m doing, that part was there. But now it’s just, I see the game a lot different, everything moves slower as far as me recognizing things. That stuff is there. Back then it took a while to process.’’
During the regular season, Branch — considered the team’s No. 4 receiver this season behind leader Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — had 51 receptions on 90 targets, for 702 yards and five scores. That’s down only slightly from his 2010 season when he had 61 receptions for 818 yards and six TD grabs, but it doesn’t mean Patriots coach Bill Belichick has any less confidence in the guy who led New England to its second straight Super Bowl win in 2005 with 11 catches for 133 yards — a mark that tied an NFL Super Bowl record and earned Branch that coveted MVP honor.
“Deion is a very instinctive receiver,” Belichick said two weeks ago before the Patriots played Denver in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs — a 45-10 romp during which Branch caught a 61-yard TD pass to finished with three catches for 85 yards, second on the team behind Gronkowski. “He was in college at Louisville and then from day one when he got here. He’s smart, he learns very quickly and he just understands the receiver concepts and techniques. He almost always does what the quarterback would expect him to do. He just has a good instinct and a good feel for what the right decision to make is based on what he’s seeing, and then, so that he can help the quarterback, (gets to) the spot where the quarterback wants him to be and when he wants him to be there.
“Deion has a great sense for that timing.”
And also coming through when his teammates need him most.
Last week — although it wasn’t publicized — Branch played in the AFC Championship game against Baltimore despite suffering from the flu all week. Yet he still managed to contribute with two catches for 18 yards and make several key downfield blocks in the run game during what a somewhat sloppy offensive performance all around by the Pats, who held on to win only after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal wide left in the closing seconds that would’ve sent the game into overtime.
Branch addressed that performance — and how the Patriots must improve before facing the Giants — this week in an interview with WEEI Radio in Boston.
“I battled the whole game with the flu — had it for about a week. I didn’t even see (the missed field goal). I promise you. I didn’t even see the last 10 plays, I felt so bad,” Branch said. “But as an offensive player, we didn’t put our best football on the field (last Sunday) and we put our defense’s backs against the wall. We put them in that situation and they held up. Those guys, they played a great game.”
Branch even had a message for the media after the game as it made its way around the locker room to speak to the Patriots’ players about the nail-biting win.
“I told the reporters ... they shouldn’t have the cameras in nobody’s face on the offensive side of the ball because we didn’t hold up our part of the stick (in that game),” he said. “Our defense did a great job, (and we’re) truly thankful.
“(And) for all the people who’ve been talking about (how bad) our defense is ... take that. Those guys, they played ball (in the AFC Championship).”
Branch was then asked by WEEI’s hosts — one of which was his former teammate on that 2005 Super Bowl team, Troy Brown — about why he thought quarterback Tom Brady struggled last week, and why the offense seem so ineffective, even against one of the league’s top defenses in the Ravens.
Branch didn’t dodge the question, and followed by saying that type of outing won’t cut it next Sunday when New England squares off at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis against New York.
“You know what? I think all of us ... it’s that point in the game where we wanted it so bad; guys are out there trying to make every play, whether it be Tom, myself, Wes, Gronkowski, all the guys, man,” he said. “.... We expect all the guys to make those plays, like last week, I’ve got to make that catch (for a 61-yard score against Denver). You only get so many opportunities. On the offensive side of the ball, we didn’t cash in like we normally do. We drove the ball up and down the field on them all day long, but when we got in the red area, we just couldn’t put it in.
“We got away with it (last Sunday) but that performance won’t get us a victory (against the Giants).”
Sunday’s game, as everyone knows, will be a rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl won by the Giants in stunning fashion, 17-14. The New York victory not only shocked the pro football world — considering New England entered the game 19-0 and was on the verge of becoming just the second franchise in NFL history to go unbeaten since the 1972 Dolphins — but it was one that Branch was not a part of. He was traded to the Seattle Seahawks after the 2005-2006 season following a bitter contract dispute with the Patriots.
Nonetheless, Branch says he remembers the 2008 game well because it pained him to watch “guys I still loved” lose.
“I was watching, I was hoping my guys won. I was sitting in my basement, pulling for them. I had a bunch of guys I still loved and truly appreciated playing with on that team,” he told WEEI. “I felt bad when they didn’t win it.”
So what does the 2008 game have to do with the 2012 rematch?
Nothing, according to Branch.
“This is a totally different game now — totally different compared to this year and that last game,” he said. “Different styles, different players on the team. It’s going to be a different game.”
The Patriots, who eerily lost to the Giants in Week 9, 24-20, in similar last-second fashion, had better hope so. Although, Branch said he doesn’t think that defeat — one of just three all season for the Pats (15-3) — will play much of a role come next Sunday.
“Yeah, there’s some things we can do (differently this time against New York). We’re going to look at that film, get down and critique it pretty hard, but I think overall, once (the Super Bowl game time of) 6:20 p.m. hits, it’s time to get down and play football — regardless of what happened when we played them 2 months ago,” Branch said. “That game won’t matter.”
Branch, the only native of Albany to ever play in and win a Super Bowl — much less two — has been limited in practice this week as he continues to recover from the flu and soreness in both his knees, but there’s little doubt he’ll be on the field in Indy as he seeks his third Super Bowl ring in three tries. His role was crucial in the Patriots’ first win in 2004 — 10 catches for 143 yards — and he then came up huge a year later in 2005 when he won the MVP. And now that he’s back for the first time after a seven-year drought, he’s been reciting the same message to himself, and his teammates, this week as they prepare.
“Put all your eggs in one basket. It’s the last game, no more practices after this. We need everyone’s best game. Period,” he said. “You have to put everything in perspective and realize this may be it. This may be your last chance to play in a championship.
“Some guys never get an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl, and it’s a blessing to be in this position. We need to maximize this opportunity and take advantage of it.”