Take that T.O.: Branch is Super Bowl MVP
the associated press
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. ” The somewhat unheralded group of New England receivers now has a Super Bowl MVP among its ranks.
While Tom Brady, Corey Dillon, Bill Belichick and nearly every Patriots defender has basked in the spotlight during the team’s dynastic run, the wideouts haven’t gotten much attention.
On Sunday night, though, there was no ignoring Deion Branch in the Patriots’ 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Branch tied a Super Bowl record with 11 catches, gaining 133 yards and making a half-dozen big plays. No longer is Troy Brown the most recognizable New England pass-catcher ” and Brown got most of his headlines for also playing defense.
“He’s our biggest, strongest receiver. He does all the dirty work,” Brown said. “He leveled a guy on one of runs down the sideline. He doesn’t get enough credit. He’s a big-time playmaker. Our whole group of receivers doesn’t get the credit they deserve.”
That’s partly because the receivers are so interchangeable. If Branch isn’t having a big game, maybe Brown is. Or David Givens. Or David Patten. Or Bethel Johnson. Or one of the tight ends.
But Super Sunday was Branch’s star turn. Terrell Owens’ return to the Eagles’ lineup after nearly seven weeks on the sideline with an ankle injury drew the most attention in pregame buildup. And Owens certainly did his part with nine receptions for 122 yards.
Still, Branch walked off with a third championship ring and the Pete Rozelle Trophy that Brady took home in the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl wins.
“They say big players step up in big games,” Branch said. “All the hoopla was about T.O. He’s a great player. He really sucked it up tonight. But I want to show I have the same type of talent as those guys.”
Not that anyone with the Patriots doubted the third-year pro could be so dominant.
A second-round pick out of Louisville in 2002, he caught 43 passes his rookie year. He improved to 57 the following year, but missed seven games this season because of a knee injury. He finished with just 35 catches for 454 yards and four TDs.
Branch was so frustrated during the recovery process that he didn’t travel to every road game.
“My teammates kept pushing me to get better,” he said. “They were telling me, ‘We’re going to need you soon.’ I’m just thankful they didn’t put me on IR,” knowing injured reserve would have ended his season.
Branch found plenty of free space against the NFL’s best secondary. It didn’t matter who was covering him or what defense the Eagles were playing.
He played a role in all four scoring drives. The biggest catch might have been the last one ” a leaping 19-yarder over the middle that set up Adam Vinatieri’s 22-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
“They did a good job of getting him in the open zone,” All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins said.
In all, eight of his catches for 106 yards came on New England’s scoring drives. And his 11 receptions tied Jerry Rice and Cincinnati’s Dan Ross for catches in a Super Bowl.
Branch has developed into one of Brady’s favorite receivers, usually getting the first look when a blitz is coming or a big catch is needed.
In last year’s Super Bowl, Branch had 10 catches and a touchdown in a 32-29 victory over Carolina. Now, he has helped the Patriots become just the second team to win three Super Bowls in four years.
“He’s a very dynamic player,” Brady said. “He can do it all ” getting open, doing great things after he caught the ball.”
The type of things Owens does.
Philadelphia’s All-Pro receiver defied his doctor by playing just 6 1/2 weeks after surgery. With a metal plate and two screws in his right ankle, Owens was outstanding.
But Branch was better.
“I think Deion kind of put the Patriots receivers on the map a little more with tonight’s game,” Givens said. “He got us maybe a little more respect that we probably needed that we didn’t have.”
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