Branch more to their taste
DETROIT — Don’t know about you, but I was becoming nauseated listening to the Randy Moss apologists.
“Stretch the field. Stretch the field. Stretch the field.’’ Those were the only three words they knew: stretch, the, and field. “Boo-hoo. Randy’s gone. Who’s gonna stretch the field?’’
Well, we all saw Tom Brady hit Deion Branch for a 79-yard touchdown yesterday at
Sorry, just had to throw that one in. But it really is a case of “Randy Who?’’ With yesterday’s 45-24 Turkey Day triumph over the Detroit Lions, the Patriots have just concluded a three-game, 12-day stretch of winning football, during which they have averaged in excess of 38 points a game, whether they stretch the field or don’t stretch the field. Offensively speaking, they are a better, more balanced, far more interesting, and, above all, effective football team with Branch in the lineup than they were with The Great Diva picking his spots. Randy Moss may be going to the Hall of Fame, but Deion Branch is going to the playoffs, and he might even find himself playing some football in Arlington, Texas, the night of Feb. 6. You never know.
It took the Patriots a while to get rolling against the improved Lions, but once they did they were an absolute pleasure to watch, at least on offense (and they did come up with some game-altering picks). Brady looks quite comfortable throwing to his Moss-less group of receivers. Without Randy to, ahem, stretch the field, he was 21 for 27, good for 341 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and, for what it’s worth, a “perfect’’ quarterback rating of 158.3, a number that will forever be a mystery to those of us who weren’t smart enough to get into MIT.
Three of those receptions, 113 of those yards, and two of those touchdowns were the work of Branch, the 5-foot-9-inch wideout with the big heart and even bigger smile. Branch had the honor of both tying the game at 24 with the aforementioned 79-yard catch and run, and of giving his team a nonrefundable lead of 31-24 with a 22-yard reception in the left corner of the end zone, after which he made a double bow to the crowd before handing the football to a young lady in Patriots garb.
“It’s Thanksgiving,’’ he said by way of explanation. “I’m very thankful to be playing on this special day. We’re all blessed. The fans who come here spend a lot of money. Yes, we’re entertaining them, but I thought she would appreciate the football.’’
Wide receivers appreciate the football, too, and some of them have been known to sulk when it doesn’t come their way as regularly as they’d like. Branch was only “targeted,’’ as we now are supposed to say, once in the first half. As far as we know, he didn’t respond to this indignity by tweeting his agent.
“Tom was just going through his reads,’’ Branch explained. “My job is to keep working to get open.’’
Branch got on the stat sheet with a 12-yard reception for a first down at the Lions’ 11 in the aftermath of a very big Devin McCourty interception when the Patriots were trailing, 17-10, and had just gone nowhere on their first possession of the second half. Brady quickly made them pay for that error, completing a four-play drive with a 5-yard TD pass to Wes Welker.
The Lions responded with a touchdown drive to retake the lead at 24-17, and now it was third and 2 at the Patriots’ 21 when Branch got behind third-year cornerback Alphonso Smith for a reception around the Lions’ 20, and this is where the fun began.
It was a scene right out of backyard one-on-one football with your brother or best friend. Branch was right there for Smith to tackle, but he couldn’t do it, as the elusive receiver juked left, juked right, and spun Smith around twice before making his way into the end zone for one of this season’s most electrifying touchdowns.
“The biggest thing is that I was just looking at the end zone,’’ Branch explained. “I wasn’t focusing on where he was. I was just hoping that no one was coming from behind.’’
As for the play, Brady said, “He was supposed to run an in-out, and the guy was sitting on it. He threw his hand up, and I laid it out there for him. He made a great run after the catch. Certainly, that’s not how we drew it up, but it’s just a great play by a great player.’’
“Tom made a great throw,’’ Branch said, “[and the] front line did a great job holding up, because if you noticed I wasn’t the first read. He came back to me and I was doing everything to get open for it, and I did it. He hit me, and the rest is history.’’
Branch knows something about history, all right, being the MVP in Super Bowl XXXIX. That was in his first Patriots incarnation. Given all the nice things everyone has to say about him, you really do wonder why he was allowed to get away, not to mention why things didn’t work out better for him in Seattle. “There wasn’t anything wrong with me,’’ he shrugs.
He has had no problem reconnecting with Brady. “He’s tough, smart, a Patriots’ kind of guy,’’ Brady declared. “He’s in the mold of Troy Brown, David Patten.’’
The coach, meanwhile, appears to be mulling adoption.
“Of course, you know, Deion had, as Deion usually does, two really outstanding individual routes there,’’ said Bill Belichick. “He came open and made big plays, scoring touchdowns for us. That was big.’’
Asked about Branch’s attitude and presence, Coach Bill said, “He’s the best. You can’t get better than that. He’s totally about the team.’’
As opposed to . . . oh, never mind. That’s Tennessee’s problem now.