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In Big Games, Branch Is Huge

5-Foot-9 Wideout Gives the Patriots A Deep Target

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page D03

JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Feb. 2 -- As a senior at Monroe High School in Albany, Ga., New England Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch wanted nothing more than to attend the University of Florida and play college football for Steve Spurrier.

"Are you kidding?" he said Wednesday. "They threw the ball 60, 70 times a game. How could you not want to play for that man?"

The Patriots' Deion Branch gets behind the camera. In last year's Super Bowl he was filmed making 10 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown. (Mike Blake -- Reuters)

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It never happened. Branch, by his own admission, had not been quite as productive in the classroom as he had been on the football field, and Spurrier told him if he wanted to be a Gator, he'd probably first have to attend junior college and raise his grades and his test scores. Branch followed that route, but in the end, never did find his way to The Swamp in Gainesville, signing instead with Louisville.

"Me knowing that I only had two years to play college football, and me knowing they had a lot of good receivers [at Florida] and I'd have had to fight for a job, I figured I better go where I'd get a chance to play right away," he said. "Louisville was the only school where the head coach came to visit me at my junior college. That made a big difference to me."

John L. Smith, the Louisville head coach who made the trip to Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss., got Branch to play for the Cardinals, a decision neither would regret. Smith, now the head coach at Michigan State, ran a wide-open pro style offense, and Branch, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound former sprinter, was a perfect fit. Over two years, he caught 143 passes and had 18 touchdown receptions, and the Patriots took him in the second round of the 2002 draft.

Despite the disappointment of never playing in Spurrier's college offense, Branch has few regrets about the somewhat circuitous path that led him to the NFL and a starting position on the Super Bowl champions.

"I wouldn't trade anything for it," he said, with one caveat.

"Personally, I would have done something better in high school so I could have gone to a stronger program in college. I loved Louisville, and I enjoyed my time there, but I think I set myself back in high school. I think I got a big head because I was doing so well in high school [sports]. I started hanging with my friends and stopped going to class, and my grades fell.

"It was a learning experience for me that I can go back and talk to some of the younger guys on what to do in those type of situations. It happened to me, and I learned from it."

Branch has learned something else in the three seasons with the Patriots, mostly that he has had to keep his ego in check, capitalize on his opportunities whenever the ball comes his way and go back to work on Monday as if he were starting his rookie season all over again.

The Patriots have a talented quartet of receivers, including Branch's fellow starter, three-year veteran David Givens, 12-year veteran Troy Brown and eight-year veteran David Patten. Branch is their best and fastest deep threat and also has shown a propensity for big plays on the biggest stage, as evidenced by his 10 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots' Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers last year.

In the AFC title game in Pittsburgh on Jan. 23, he had an early 60-yard touchdown reception, caught a 45-yard pass from Tom Brady to set up another, then took an end-around 23 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the 41-27 victory and help secure New England's third Super Bowl appearance in four years.

"Yeah, a lot of people are talking about that big game stuff," he said. "I'm just going out to do things for my family and my friends and my teammates. I'm 5-9. I'm little. Some people might think I'm not supposed to play the game, and I know people love what I bring to the game. I don't have a chip on my shoulder. I just have confidence in knowing what I can do."

So do his teammates.

"He's everything you look for," said Brady. "He's smart, tough, catches the ball, runs well, blocks, and he's got a quarterback's mentality. He knows when he's getting the ball based on the coverage. He knows how to run routes, he knows how to set the defenders up. He's awesome, and he's always getting better."

The Eagles also are wary of Branch and all the Patriots' receivers.

"We view all of them as number one guys," said Philadelphia cornerback Sheldon Brown. "They're so productive. They spread the ball around so much that you really can't focus on one guy. They play hard every play. They all do the little things. They try to block when they're running the ball, and they get after you for the full 60 minutes. And they all get down the field fast."

Branch had 35 receptions during the regular season but missed seven starts when he suffered a knee injury in the second week while making a tackle on an interception return against the Arizona Cardinals. He also knows he probably could have more receptions as the lead wide receiver on many NFL teams but insists he's more than satisfied with championships rather than gaudy statistics.

"As a receiver you have to want the football, and if you don't want it, you shouldn't play receiver," he said. "It's not being selfish, it's just being a football player. On this team, when the opportunity comes, you just have to catch it. You can go have 90 catches, but you can go home in December, too.

"We aren't greedy. One week it might be Troy's game, the next might be Patten's game and the next might be David's game. If we're winning, we're all happy."

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