INDIANAPOLIS -- Loyal Patriots fans know the answer to this question, but let's ask anyway:
In the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories, Tom Brady was named the Most Valuable Player award twice. Who was the other player to win it?
The answer, of course, is Deion Branch, who had a record-tying 11 catches for 133 yards in the Patriots' 24-21 victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Branch's MVP performance may be easy to remember for Patriots fans. Yet back in the Super Bowl seven years later (in part because of a four-plus-season hiatus in Seattle), some might wonder whether he's an afterthought in a high-octane Patriots offense that features Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez ahead of the 32-year-old receiver.
Bill Belichick says it would be foolish to come to such a conclusion.
"I can't speak for anyone else's recognition, but from my standpoint and the team's standpoint, I think everyone knows how important Deion is to our football team, to our offense, and our passing game," Belichick said. "I couldn't imagine anybody on the team not thinking that Deion Branch has tremendous importance to our football team. I don't care if they play offense, defense, or wash towels, I just can't imagine anybody would think that."
Branch, who had 51 receptions for 702 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season, said he has no issues with the perception that he's overlooked or underestimated outside of the Patriots locker room.
"No, that's cool. I just do my job,'' Branch said. "I can't worry about who is controlling and who is saying A, B, C, D. I just do my job. I'm not here to be the one that says, 'Hey, I need all the attention.' That's not me."
Should Gronkowski, who suffered what his father said was a high ankle sprain in the AFC Championship game and did not practice yesterday, not be as effective as usual Sunday, it's a possibility that Branch could pick up some of the slack if necessary. But Belichick emphasized that Branch is an integral part of the Patriots offense no matter how often he's being targeted by Brady.
"He handles a lot of different responsibilities as far as where he lines up, his position and his assignments, Belichick said. "He has a great route tree in terms of the number and variety of routes that he runs. He has great confidence in his relationship with Tom [Brady] because of their experience together."
Belichick cited Branch's 61-yard touchdown catch against the Broncos in the AFC Divisional Playoffs as a play that happened in part because of the receiver's intelligence and ability to recognize a defense.
"I don't know how many players on our football team make that play for us,'' Belichick said. "It was a clear-out route, but it wasn't a clear-out route. Tom saw it and Deion saw it, and turned it into a long touchdown."
"Blocking, people don't give him credit for that. Deion has done a good job blocking for us this year. I look at him and say he looks like a great blocker, but he is an effective blocker. He's done a great job. The running backs appreciate him."
And Branch, who first arrived in New England in 2002 as a second-round pick out of Louisville, appreciates the role he has on the team, though it amuses him that he's now one of the elder statesmen.
"I'm the older guy, exactly. It's crazy. I'm one of the older guys," Branch said. "I was just talking to DP [former Patriots receiver David Patten] about two or three days ago. He was one of the guys I looked up to and he and Troy Brown showed so much love to me when I was a young guy. Now I have the opportunity to do the same thing for those young guys."