AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Branch thankful for one more shot at a ring

Albany native Deion Branch will see an increased role in the Patriots’ offense today with the injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Albany native Deion Branch will see an increased role in the Patriots’ offense today with the injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Want To Watch?

WHO: Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at New England Patriots (13-4).

WHAT: AFC Championship.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Foxborough, Mass.

TV: CBS. LINE: Patriots by 7 1/2.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Another NFL season, another trip to the playoffs for Albany native and former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch.

And when Branch’s New England Patriots (13-4) face the Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at home today in the AFC title game, there may not be anyone on the field who appreciates being there any more than Branch, who was brought back to New England this season just in time for another run.

And make no mistake — he cherishes every moment of it.

“I do (cherish it). I’m going to always do that every day. I think we all have to be very thankful to play this game, whether it’s us in the position that we’re in or the guys who didn’t make the postseason,’’ Branch said during a news conference Friday.

Branch then added: “You still have to be very thankful for the opportunity to play this game. There are a million guys who set out each and every year to play in the NFL; there’s only a select few guys who are going to make it. I’m very thankful that I’m one of those guys.’’

Branch, citing a strong week of practice, believes the Patriots will be ready for today’s rematch of last year’s AFC title game against the Ravens.

“We had a great week. I think every day we improved on a lot of things, like coach said, ‘That’s the goal, to come in and get better and better each day.’ And I think we did a good job of it,” he said. “We need everybody for this game. We need everybody, and we’re sure they’re going to have everybody as well.’’

Branch, who was cut twice by New England this year — only to be brought back both times — has seen a significant dip in his stats this season, catching just15 passes this season for 129 yards and no touchdowns. But he’s not worried about because he’s simply thankful to be on the cusp of the fourth Super Bowl of his career.

The Patriots are favored to win — by nine points, to be exact — and get back to the Super Bow, where they fell to the New York Giants last year. Following that game, many felt Patriots quarterback Tom Brady should have thrown the ball more to his veteran, reliable target Branch considering Brady and Branch have always had a special connection that has been cemented by their time together. Branch said one year later, their chemistry is even stronger because they’ve put in the work off the field.

“It’s a little of both, Branch said. “I think it’s all the work that we put in during the week in the meeting rooms, on the practice field. I promise you, we pretty much hit everything in the playbook. We go over every option, and that’s what it’s about. You never know when something might come up in the game. We want to make sure that we’ve seen it before and we actually went over it.”

Brady is, in many ways, in a league of his own. Branch said the reason Brady stands out so much is one reason.

“Preparation,’’ he said. “It’s all about preparation and then executing. It’s totally different (with Brady). You know, it never ends with Tom. This goes from the game last Sunday to him starting to prepare for Baltimore right after ... the Houston game. And it goes all the way to Saturday. Trust me, we’re going over stuff Saturday morning, Saturday night. Sunday morning before the game in the meetings, we’re still going over things. It’s always good to be prepared for an opponent like the Ravens.’’

New England is here because the Patriots know how to win more than any team in the AFC, and they proved it again last week against Houston when they never skipped a beat despite losing running back Danny Woodhead early in that game.

“I think the biggest thing is coach put us through all those things in practice,’’ Branch said. “Even though there were a lot of plays called for Woodhead, he made sure that Shane (Vereen) also got a couple reps in and made sure (Stevan) Ridley got a couple reps in. You never know. Injuries are going to happen in this game. Guys are going to miss some plays. Some guys may be tired and need a break. You know, Coach puts us through certain things to make sure everybody gets the opportunity to go out and make those plays as well.’’

That’s one thing that has always helped New England’s success: the ability to continue winning when players go down.

“Well, that’s the thing about this team. We’ve got a bunch of guys who are unselfish and that’s what’s important,’’ said Branch, who knows a thing or two about unselfishness after he was used primarily as a decoy last week against Houston and didn’t record a catch. “I think we put the team first in everything that we do. That is something that creates success in a team. We’ve had a bunch of guys who probably could even start elsewhere, but I think most of all, this is where guys want to be. They enjoy it, enjoy playing here, enjoy being in the locker room. We take the coaching that coach (Bill) Belichick gives us and we put it out on the football field. I think the way that this team prepares before each and every game is what separates us from every team, though.’’

Everyone knows the backdrop story to today’s game is Baltimore star LB Ray Lewis’ emotional ride through the playoffs has taken on new meaning because Lewis is retiring after this season, which has brought a new dimension to Baltimore’s success in the playoffs. It could be another rallying point for the Ravens today. No one is sure once the game starts how big of a role that emotion will play.

“I don’t know,’’ Branch said. “I think just based off their team, if that’s what’s been getting them through the postseason then that’s a good thing for them. I think once the game starts, it’s all about that game of football. Going out there, executing your plays. The team who’s the most prepared, who executes the plays, is going to win the game.’’

New England has had great rivalries with the Steelers and Colts but now that Pittsburgh is down and Peyton Manning has left Indianapolis for Denver, it seems the Ravens have emerged as new England’s biggest playoff rival, and today’s game will only add to it.

“I mean, it seems like we play these guys – we played them two times this year, once last year. It’s starting it become the norm now,’’ Branch said. “They might as well add them to the AFC East, we play them that much. And it’s also good to play against good competition. To be the best you want to beat the best, and they’re one of the best defenses in the NFL.’’

But Branch added that every rivalry stands on his own, and what happens today will define the Patriots’ rivalry with Baltimore as much as anything.

“Each one of (the rivalries) is totally different,’’ Branch said. “I think at the end of the game, I’ll be able to tell you (the difference). But I think the ones in the past, the Pittsburgh rivalries, postseason rivalries, all of those are so different. The one last year, just totally different. We’ll see what the difference is between this one and last year after the game. Hopefully the outcome is the same.’’

Today could be a big day for Branch, who will likely see more looks with star tight end Rob Gronkowski on IR. He realizes that he’s no longer Brady’s No. 1, 2 or 3 option, and because of that he has learned a lot about himself this year.

“I didn’t think I was as patient as I am,’’ he said. “I think me starting in the NFL for so long and now the role that I have, I didn’t know if I could do it. And I see that I can because the goal is bigger than just me, you know. Me just wanting to be out on the field, starting every game, contributing — I want to do all those things. But at the same time if the coach needs me to (just) go in on third down, then I just have to do my job. That’s just one of the things that I’ve learned. I accept it and I’m going to roll with it; whatever the coach needs me to do, I’m going to do it.’’

Because ofhis year and this postseason has meant even more to Branch.

“It’s (means a lot to be in this game). This isn’t our bigger goal, though, trust me,’’ Branch said. “It’s a blessing to be a part of this game. It’s a blessing.’’