JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They have their stories. Sad stories. Hard-luck stories. Backs-against-the-wall stories. It is those stories that make them so appreciative of their situation, so hard-working, so unselfish, and probably so underappreciated by others.
David Patten played Arena League football and used to load sacks of coffee for a living. David Givens came out of a ground-oriented program at Notre Dame, a seventh-round draft pick whom few experts thought would develop into a Hines Ward-type receiver. Troy Brown played the first few years of his career on special teams and was cut once before becoming a 100-reception guy and now a three-way player. Deion Branch was told he didn't have the academic credentials to play for Steve Spurrier at Florida but vowed to change that perception someday. Look at him now.
Two Super Bowl titles later, the names still do not roll off the tongue. They never have or ever will give the opposing team bulletin-board material. They never have or ever will celebrate excessively in the end zone.
They never will own the spotlight like Terrell Owens. They never will try to steal the spotlight like Freddie Mitchell, who said he didn't know the names of the players in the Patriots' secondary.
"I know their names," Branch said when asked if he knew the Eagles he will oppose Sunday. "Three All-Pro guys back there. They have an unbelievable secondary. This is going to be a huge challenge for us."
When you think of the Patriots, you think of Tom Brady. You think about defense. You think about Bill Belichick. One of the last things that comes to mind is who catches the passes Brady throws.
That's because there aren't any numbers to make your eyes pop. Givens caught 56 passes for a 15.6-yard average and three touchdowns this season. Patten was next with 44 for an 18.2-yard average and seven touchdowns. Branch caught 35 passes for 13.0 yards per catch and four touchdowns. Because of Brown's diminished role in the offense, he managed only 17 catches, while Bethel Johnson, another young Patriot receiver, caught 10 passes.
Brady was an equal-opportunity quarterback, distributing the ball to whomever was open.
"That's the way our offense is set up," said Givens. "Any guy can be the go-to guy in any different game. Our receivers do a great job of being prepared every week."
Givens showed promise his rookie season. He watched tapes of Ward and other bigger receivers and realized he could find a niche. He was a Notre Dame guy, too, and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis was a Notre Dame guy, so there was a bond. Weis thought Givens could develop into a strong receiver down the middle. Lo and behold, that's what Givens did.
Givens also has become a big-game receiver. He caught four passes in this year's playoff victory against Indianapolis, including a 5-yard touchdown, and against Pittsburgh he caught five more, including a 9-yard touchdown.
"After my rookie year, I really started to focus on the small things and tried to improve in every aspect of the game," he said. "I think my success in big games just comes from being focused."
Branch has benefited most from the Patriots' switch to a downfield passing game. He has had a few injury issues in his career, but when healthy, he's the closest thing to a go-to guy on the roster. That was illustrated by his 60-yard touchdown reception last week at Pittsburgh.
Branch, a second-round draft pick, wanted to go to Florida, but, he said, "Coach Spurrier said that I had to go to a junior college, and from there I signed with Louisville and things went good from there."
He wouldn't change the way it turned out, but he wishes he applied himself more to his studies in high school so he could have gone to a bigger program.
"I started hanging with my friends and stopped going to class and my grades fell," said Branch. "I learned from it."
Patten was considered too small and not fast enough when he came out of college, but he got noticed in the AFL. He's been on the verge of losing his spot on the team a time or two because of injuries, but each time he's emerged stronger than ever.
"I like to be told I can't do something," Patten said, "because then I'll prove you wrong."
Brown has gone from one "no-name unit" with the receivers to a "no-name unit" with the secondary. When the Patriots asked Brown to play defense in training camp, it was clear that he had fallen on the receiving depth chart.
"I'd rather be playing football, period," he said. "No matter what that is. Special teams are a part of the game. Offense, defense is a part of the game. I love playing football. Whatever it calls for me to do, I'm going to do it."
When Brown arrives for work each morning, he asks Belichick which meeting he should attend. Lately, it's been more defense than offense.
"Since I've been here, our receivers haven't got the notice I think they deserve," Brown said. "Back when we had Terry [Glenn] and Shawn [Jefferson], I thought we had great receivers then. We have great receivers now. The young guys have come so far in the time I've seen them.
"We don't get the notice, but who cares? At the end of the year, if you win a Super Bowl, that's all that matters. I think that's what this group of guys has figured out. Tom is a quarterback that's going to get you the ball if you're open. Simple as that. He's not out there trying to count how many balls have gone to this receiver or that receiver."
Brown's work ethic and dedication seem to have rubbed off on Givens and Branch, who get a kick out of facing Brown, the defensive back, in practice.
Branch might have summed it up for his fellow receivers when he said, "We aren't greedy. One week it might be Troy's game, the next might be Patten's game and the next week might be [Givens's] game. It happens like that, and if we are winning, we're happy."