Randy Moss was supposed to be the receiver who stretched out defenses and gave the New England Patriots a deep threat.
With his twisting, cutting, 79-yard touchdown play, Deion Branch proved there’s more than one way to score on a long pass, and showed why the Patriots have improved since unloading the mercurial Moss.
“I was doing everything I could to get open for it, and I did it,” Branch said after catching two touchdown passes from Tom Brady to help the Patriots tie the game, then take the lead and beat the Detroit Lions 45-24 on Thanksgiving Day. “He hit me, and the rest is history.”
New England’s victory came just a few hours before the New York Jets beat Cincinnati 26-10, setting up a Monday night matchup between the two top teams in the NFL. Both at 9-2, the Patriots and Jets each have 10 days off before they meet in Foxborough, Mass., on Dec. 6 with the AFC East lead at stake.
The win in Detroit was New England’s sixth in seven games since acquiring Branch and third in 12 days, including victories over the division-leading Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I think we just did a great a job of finding ourselves,” Branch said. “This stretch of games that we played, we know what we can get done if we go in and set up with preparation. I think these last three games we’ve been preparing very well. We have a big weekend ahead of us. We have a little off time, but I think mentally the guys need to focus on what we’re trying to get accomplish ed.”
Branch joined the Patriots on Oct. 12 when they decided they would be better off with his route-running and team-first attitude than Moss’ speed and moodiness. Branch caught nine passes, including a 5-yard touchdown, against the Ravens in his first game, but he hadn’t been back in the end zone since.
That changed Thursday when, with the Patriots facing a third-and-2 from their 21, Branch got behind Alphonso Smith and pulled in an underthrown pass from Brady at the Lions 38. Branch stutter-stepped to let the Detroit cornerback go in front of him, then waved him by as he cut to the right toward the middle of the field.
Smith caught back up at around the 20, where Branch cut back to the left for the sideline. At the 6, Branch just bulled past the Detroit defensive back and went into the end zone for the touchdown.
“I was really just looking at the end zone; I wasn’t focusing on where he was,” Branch said. “I was just hoping that no one was coming from behind. I think (safety) Louis Delmas was coming, so I cut back to the left and the final time I was like, ‘I’m done doing all the cutting.”’
It was the longest play of the year for the Patriots, the longest of Branch’s career and the fourth-longest touchdown pass ever for Brady.
“He threw his hand up and I laid it out there for him,” Brady said. “He made a great run after catch. Certainly it’s not how we drew it up, but it’s just a great play by a great player.”
Branch had three catches for 113 yards in the game, including a 22-yard touchdown on the Patriots’ next possession to give them a 31-24 lead with 13:45 left in the fourth quarter. Thanks to the long catch and run, it was his highest total in yards receiving since 2007.
“Deion had — as Deion usually does — two really outstanding individual routes there,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He came open and made big plays, scored touchdowns for us. That was big.”