Branch’s return was a real grabber
FOXBOROUGH — Deion Branch said it felt like he had never left. Like he had never been away the last four years in Seattle.
Everything just felt right in Branch’s return for a second tour of duty with the Patriots in yesterday’s 23-20 overtime triumph over the Ravens.
From the fit of his uniform, which was adorned with a new number (84), to his chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady, to his warm relationship with Patriots fans, who loudly applauded the receiver during pregame introductions, Branch was made to feel at home again in Gillette Stadium.
“I think the biggest thing is I just wanted to win in my debut,’’ said Branch, whose day could not have gone better after he was reacquired last Monday from the Seahawks to shore up the receiving corps following the trade of Randy Moss to the Vikings. “It wasn’t all about what I did.’’
Maybe it wasn’t to him. But the fans clearly made Branch feel appreciated as a vital component of the Patriots’ offense when he made his first catch, an 8-yarder, on the second play of the team’s second possession. The sellout crowd of 68,756 responded with a standing ovation.
“He made some big catches, all those play-action passes,’’ said Brady, who targeted Branch on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage, but had the pass batted down at the line by Terrell Suggs. “He made some good plays on those, so it’s great to have him out there.’’
But Branch did not let the cheers die down. He went on to punctuate his return with nine catches for 98 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown toss from Brady that pulled the Patriots within 20-17 with 11:02 remaining in regulation.
“Tuesday was kind of crazy,’’ Branch said of his first day back with the team. “They pretty much had to hold Tom back because he was all antsy, [saying], ‘I’ve got to get you the ball,’ and this and that. Coach [Bill Belichick] was like, ‘Look, son, I’m going to pretty much take you out of practice every now and then because Tom is trying to get you the ball 20 times.’ This was the first day of practice. He was excited. I was excited, too.
“I just didn’t want to get out there and get to moving around and start messing up the offense not knowing what to do. But thanks to those guys, we worked it out during the course of the week and got it done.’’
When Branch scored, it felt like old times. Facing third and goal at the Ravens’ 5, Brady moved to his left, and Branch streaked across the back of the end zone in the opposite direction. That’s when their chemistry clicked in, resulting in a Brady-to-Branch touchdown.
“Tom and I have been away for four years and I honestly don’t feel like we missed a beat,’’ Branch said. “That just shows what type of guy he is, what type of player he is. Like I said, my job is to get open.’’
Branch raised his arms triumphantly. He eschewed any fancy dance moves, for which he had been known in his first four seasons with the Patriots (2002-05), and simply took a pair of bows. Wes Welker was among the first to arrive to congratulate him.
“It’s great to have a competitor like him,’’ Welker said. “He’s going to compete every play. He’s going to give you his all and run great routes and be in the right spot and be a very accountable guy, and so it’s great to have somebody like that out on the field with you.’’
Right guard Stephen Neal joined the celebration and hoisted Branch in the air, much to the delight of the crowd.
“It’s just great to have his smile back in this locker room and his personality back in this locker room,’’ Neal said. “Just seeing him around again is great. It’s like having a nice warm bowl of chicken noodle soup.’’
Was Branch good for the soul, too? “Yeah,’’ Neal said, laughing. “It’s just great having him back. I think probably the neatest thing was just hearing how the crowd embraced him when he caught his first ball and then when he caught his first touchdown.’’
Branch’s nine receptions were the second-highest regular-season total of his career, after a 13-catch effort as a rookie at San Diego, Sept. 29, 2002. Before yesterday, his most recent appearance in a Patriots uniform was in a 2005 division playoff game at Denver, where he made eight catches for 153 yards in a 27-13 loss. He was traded to Seattle Sept. 11, 2006.
But now Branch is back. Better than ever.
“Thank God for the plays that were made on the field,’’ he said. “Thank the front line, Tom, and also Wes and those guys helping me out during the course of the game on certain things. I just wanted to win the game. Had I two or three catches and we won, I would have been happy.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.