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ON FOOTBALL

Branch return breathtaking

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It took Deion Branch nine weeks to get his "breath" back but when he did he left the Kansas City Chiefs breathless.

According to the Patriots, their explosive wide receiver had the wind knocked out of him during the second game of the season against Arizona Sept. 19, when he left the field and did not return. He wasn't seen again until last night, long after it had been learned that the real reason Branch was short of breath that day was because he'd badly wrenched his knee at the same time.

For the past nine weeks Branch has been much talked about but seldom seen, rehabbing either his lungs or his knee, depending on which injury report you care to believe.

But on the biggest regular-season stage there is, "Monday Night Football", he finally reappeared and immediately made his presence felt in the midst of New England's 27-19 victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

Branch ran, cut, and generally acted as if he'd never missed a beat, finishing the evening with six catches for 105 yards and a 26-yard touchdown catch in which he made a sharp cutback behind a block from Troy Brown less than two minutes after the Chiefs had slashed New England's lead to 17-13.

From that point the Chiefs were chasing a team they could not catch and much of the credit for that had to go to a receiver they could not catch -- a no longer winded and no longer wobbly Deion Branch.

"I was pretty excited," admitted Branch, who leaped in celebration after his first catch since September, a 17-yard reception on third and 15 that put the ball on the Chiefs 5 on the opening drive of the game.

"The guys helped me out staying calm. I didn't want to burn myself out by being overexcited."

Instead he burned the Chiefs, averaging 17.5 yards a catch and making clear immediately upon his return that he remained the team's most consistent deep threat. That, and all other aspects of Branch's game had been missing from New England's lineup for half a season and as the weeks turned into months he grew predictably antsy about his return.

Each week the Patriots would say he was getting closer but each Sunday he was nowhere near the field. Each week they said he was improving but each Sunday he would still be in civilian clothes, growing ever more anxious about when his return would actually come.

Last night he was out in sweat clothes several hours before the game, running pass routes as wide receiver coach Brian Daboll watched to see if there was the slightest hitch in his giddyap. It was obvious this night there was not and by the end of the night his presence had contributed mightily to Tom Brady's 315-yard passing performance.

"We got a big lift from Branch," coach Bill Belichick said. "Obviously Deion gave us a lot of help."

The kind of plays a healthy Branch can produce was most evident on his touchdown catch, which came with the Chiefs' defense reeling and back on its heels after a 46-yard completion to David Patten the previous play on third and 7. Patten's catch kept New England's drive alive and Branch all but took the life out of the Chiefs on the next play but perhaps just as importantly it put life into Branch's teammates when they saw him jam his foot into the ground and cut back behind Brown's block as if his knee was as sound as ever.

"I thought I was kind of slow [on the cutback]," Branch said, "but David [Givens] thought it was fast. I wasn't thinking about my leg. I just reacted. If something was supposed to happen, it would have happened."

Something did happen. Branch shot by the Chiefs' stunned defenders and sprinted into the end zone for arguably the most important score on what turned out to be a glorious Monday night not only for his team but for him as well.

"I had the opportunity to make several plays," Branch said. "I think everything worked out well. It feels really good."

So good it left the Chiefs breathless and Brown marveling at how smoothly Branch was able to come back from a two-month layoff and make a contribution.

"For as long as he's been out it would have been easy to be rusty and feel down about yourself," Brown said. "But he's been upbeat through it all. When he got his chance again tonight he just let his talent take over. It's good to have him back. It gives us another weapon. The more talent you can put on the field the better for us."

And the worse for anyone who has to try to stop the multi-headed Patriot passing game, which last night saw eight receivers catch at least one pass and 10 of the receptions going to their top four wideouts. Chief among them this time was the late arrival.

"Everyone has been pushing me to get back on the field," Branch said of the support he's received from his fellow wide receivers during his long ordeal. "It was frustrating sometimes to sit out. You see the guys out there having fun and you're in the training room. But tonight the coach gave me the opportunity to make a couple of plays.

"I'd had a whole week of practice to get the nervousness out. I knew I was going to play. I didn't know about the coach."

Belichick's decision to play Branch was most likely made during the past week of practice and then confirmed before last night's game as he ran one route after another as Daboll watched intently. The wisdom of their decision was clear by halftime and reconfirmed on the third-quarter catch and run that resulted from the long hours Branch and Brady had spent working together during the offseason and throughout training camp.

"It was a regular sight adjust and me and Tom were on the same page," Branch said. "I think we worked so hard in the offseason and during training camp and mini-camps that it was comfortable for us."

And uncomfortable for the Chiefs, who were as out of breath last night as the Patriots once said Deion Branch was nine weeks ago in Arizona.

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