FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Deion Branch has Randy Moss’ old locker, starting spot and confidence from quarterback Tom Brady.
With all that, he didn’t come to the New England Patriots to be like Moss.
He’s been better.
“I’m not Randy,” Branch said Wednesday. “I’m just here to make my plays. The coaches are giving me the opportunities. I try to cash in on them.”
When the Patriots traded Moss to Minnesota after he had no catches in their fourth game, there were dire predictions for their offense. How would it succeed without a deep threat? Wouldn’t Wes Welker’s effectiveness plummet without Moss drawing double coverage?
Even when New England obtained Branch from the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 12, six days after the Moss deal, those questions lingered. Could a 5-foot-9 receiver actually make up for the loss of a 6-4 downfield target who had been named to six Pro Bowls?
The answers started coming right away.
In his first game with the Patriots, Branch caught nine passes — the total Moss had in his four games with the team. In their current five-game winning streak, Branch caught seven passes in each of the first two games against Pittsburgh and Indianapolis and has scored at least one touchdown in each of the past three.
The last one was Moss-like — a grab behind the cornerback along the left side that Branch turned into a 59-yard touchdown on the final play of the first half of a 36-7 win over the Chicago Bears. He finished that game with a career-high 151 yards receiving.
Two weeks earlier, he had a 79-yard touchdown in a 45-24 win over the Detroit Lions.
On Sunday, the Patriots (11-2) would clinch a first-round playoff bye if they beat the Green Bay Packers (8-5) and the New York Jets lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“The biggest challenge is always a guy with the speed of Randy,” Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said, “but (in) this offense, the harder receiver (to cover) is going to be a guy like Branch, a guy like Welker, those quick guys who get in and out of space very well, get in and out of their cuts very well. For what this team is doing, (Branch) is a better fit.”
When Branch was reunited with Brady, his teammate from 2002-06, he said he didn’t return to replace Moss. Now the MVP of the 2005 Super Bowl has made people almost forget about Moss.
“That’s not my job either,” Branch said. “My job is to go in and make the plays to help my team win. That’s all I want to do. That’s all I’m here for.”
In nine games with the Patriots, Branch has 44 catches. Moss has just 18 in four games with Minnesota and five with Tennessee after the Vikings released him.
“I just think (Branch) fits perfect for what they do,” Woodson said. “Quick routes or a quick pass out to the receivers and they’re good, like I said, with yards after the catch.”
Welker has done just fine without Moss, too. He leads the Patriots with 80 catches and, with three games left, has a chance for his fourth straight season with more than 100. He and Branch each caught eight passes at Chicago.
“They’re great players,” Brady said. “They’re extremely consistent, dependable, tough, very skilled. They can run a lot of routes. They have a lot of variation to what they do. We’re always trying to put them in different positions. They both played a huge game last week, and they’re both threats out there.
“If they’re open, they’re going to get the ball. They both know that. It’s great to have them both.”
Brady, last year’s NFL comeback player of the year, and Woodson, last year’s NFL defensive player of the year, were teammates at Michigan in 1997. But Branch hasn’t needed any tips from his quarterback on how to get away from Woodson.
After all, while with the Seahawks, Branch faced the Packers twice.
“That guy is a great player,” Branch said of Woodson. “You don’t have to say too much about that guy. He plays the game the way it should be played.”
So does Branch.
Moss was traded after publicly complaining about his contract situation and didn’t always go all-out on plays. Branch is alert to Brady’s play-changing at the line or scrimmage, races downfield to throw blocks and has a team-first attitude.
“The strides he’s made for our offense (are) very substantial in what he’s been able to do,” Welker said after the latest win, “and with Tom having trust in him and us just going out there and just spreading the ball around and just everyone going out there and making plays.”
Welker was part of the 2007 Patriots team that went 16-0 in the regular season, then won two playoff games before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. He led the team with 112 catches and Moss set an NFL single-season record with 23 touchdowns.
As well as the Patriots are playing now, Branch, who was with Seattle then, knows that could change quickly.
“I saw the highlights, but I think what they were doing was real special,” he said. “I know they didn’t finish it the way they wanted to. That’s the thing. We don’t want to go down that road.
“This is the time to get everything geared up to head into the postseason.”