While you’re pounding beers and listening to a room full of people who feel obligated to laugh out loud at every Super Bowl commercial or you’re trying to track down the culprit who clogged your toilet, former University of Louisville wide receiver Deion Branch will have more important things on his mind…like a third Super Bowl ring.
Branch played for John L. Smith’s Louisville Cardinals in 2000 and 2001 after two seasons at a Mississippi junior college. Branch led UofL in receiving in 2000, helping the Cards earn a trip to the Liberty Bowl. The following year, Branch was a first-team All-CUSA selection after another stellar season and a Liberty Bowl championship.
Fast forward to the 2002 NFL Draft. The Albany, Georgia native is selected 65th overall by the New England Patriots. Coach Bill Belichick saw flashes of what Branch could become as he was third on the team in receptions in his rookie year.
On to 2003, where Branch led the team in receptions, none bigger than the one he caught with just a few seconds left in Super Bowl XXXVIII (or 38, to you non-Romans). That completion set up Adam Vinatieri’s game winning field goal in New England’s 32-29 win over Carolina.
Branch’s position in the Patriot dynasty was secured the following season when he tied a Super Bowl record with 11 catches for 133 yards. He was named Super Bowl MVP after the 24-21 win against Philadelphia.
From 2006-2010, Branch took his talent to Seattle, where talent usually goes to die (i.e. Jerry Rice and Franco Harris, among others) but Branch returned to New England in 2010. He’s not the focus of the offense these days as he was in his prime…and that’s OK with him.
"No, that's cool. I just do my job. I can't worry about who is controlling and who's saying A, B, C, D. I just do my job. I'm not here to be the one that says, 'Hey I need all the attention.' That's not me,” Branch said at a pre-Super Bowl news conference this week in Indianapolis.
The numbers may not show what Branch brings to this version of the Pats. 702 yards and 5 touchdowns during the regular season won’t grab a lot of attention outside the locker room, but inside the New England camp, coaches and teammates alike insist he’s a significant part of this year’s squad.
“From my standpoint and the team's standpoint, I think everyone knows how important Deion is to our football team, to our offense, and our passing game," said New England Head Coach Bill Belichick. "Blocking, people don't give him credit for that. Deion has done a good job blocking for us this year."
Branch’s contributions are seen even from his team’s defensive personnel. Safety Patrick Chung is learning from the veteran wideout. “He makes plays, man. He's a veteran that makes plays and can make big catches. If there's a lot of pressure on guys, he can take the pressure because he's been there, he has that experience; he has all the things that veterans need to play in big games like that."
One of the big catches that Chung and Belichick noted was the 61-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Tom Brady in New England’s playoff win against Denver. The Brady-to-Branch connection could be pivotal Sunday if Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski (2nd in the NFL touchdowns in the regular season) is less than 100%. His high ankle sprain is a cause for concern.
The last time New England and New York met in the Super Bowl (2008), Giants receiver David Tyree had his one shining moment with a 3rd-and-5 reception off his own helmet that kept alive a drive that ended with Eli Manning throwing a game-winning touchdown to Plaxico Burress (who later learned sweat pants and pistols are a bad combination). Branch was not on that Patriots team. He was in Seattle. But New England wanted him back and obtained him in a trade with the Seahawks. The former Louisville Cardinal may not be the MVP this weekend for his Patriots, but expect Branch to have an effect on this team.
"My confidence is very high. I'm never lacking in that part,” says Branch. “It's all about opportunities and what the defense gives us and taking advantage of it. Whether it's me or any of the other guys, I'm going to go out and play my game."
Photo: Courtesy Patriots.com