FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Shola Branch cried when she heard her husband had been traded across the country. They were not tears of joy.
They’d have to find a new home. The children would have to make new friends.
“She took it the hardest,” Deion Branch said.
But it also would be a new start for him, a key role in the New England Patriots’ offense after more than four years with the Seattle Seahawks. And he was excited.
“She’s like, ‘We have to up and move again? We’ve been here four years,’ ” Branch said Tuesday, his familiar smile creasing his face. “I’m like, ‘Baby, we’ve got to go. It’s time to go. I enjoyed my four years here, but it’s time to go. I think we need to move on.’ ”
On the field, the adjustment has been smooth. Branch was reunited with quarterback Tom Brady, his quarterback in his first four seasons before he was traded to Seattle after the first game in 2006 during a contract dispute.
Just five days after the trade back to the Patriots on Oct. 12, Branch caught a season-high nine passes for 98 yards and one touchdown in a 23-20 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens. As the season progressed, it became clear Branch was more than an adequate replacement for Randy Moss, who was traded to Minnesota on Oct. 6.
Branch finished the season with 48 receptions and six touchdowns in 11 games with New England.
“That would have been crazy” to be told when the season began that he’d be playing the New York Jets in a divisional playoff game Sunday, he said. “The opportunity that I had to come back here was just a blessing.
“I’m always thankful,” Branch said. “I always think about what could have been. You always have those moments. I think the biggest thing is you can’t dwell on it and you can’t focus on it. The only thing you can do is take advantage of right now.”
It won’t be easy.
Branch must figure out how to escape the tight coverage of Darrelle Revis. He held Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne, the AFC leader in receptions, to one catch for 1 yard in New York’s 17-16 wild-card win last Saturday night.
But Branch doesn’t know what the Colts’ game plan was.
“I can’t sit here and say, ‘Yeah, he shut him down,’ ” he said. “There were some times that Reggie was open and he didn’t get the ball and there were other times that he was covered. It’s 50-50. It’s just hard to sit back and say, ‘He did this. He did that.’ Both of them are great players.”
At times, Branch probably will be guarded by Antonio Cromartie.
“I don’t think their offense really changed all that much when they got Branch,” Cromartie said. “I think he does a little more than Randy did, in terms of running routes across the middle and running more slants and things like that. They still have a guy who can run down the field deep and they use him the same way they used Randy Moss.”
Branch was still in Seattle when the Jets beat the Patriots 28-14 on Sept. 19. In the rematch, a 45-3 New England win on Dec. 6, he caught three passes for 64 yards and a touchdown.
In two Super Bowls he has 21 catches, third in the history of the championship game. The Patriots won both of them, and he was voted MVP in their last Super Bowl win in 2005 over the Philadelphia Eagles.
In the last game of his first stint with the Patriots, Branch caught eight passes for a career-high 153 yards, but they lost 27-13 to the Denver Broncos in the divisional round.
The offense has changed since then, but Branch is still the same sure-handed receiver who occasionally outruns defenders for deep passes.
“He’s a very intelligent player, really smart, really instinctive guy,” coach Bill Belichick said. “No matter what the route, no matter what the coverage is, he always seems to do the right thing, make the right adjustment, make the right decision.”
Tight end Alge Crumpler, a 10-year veteran, is playing with Branch for the first time.
“It seemed like it was a natural transition for Deion from the first day he came in,” he said. “We were playing Baltimore that week and in the second half he just went on a tear, catching balls, getting us down the field, getting ready for overtime and making plays. … In terms of Deion’s professionalism and the way he interacts with guys in our locker room, it’s been a seamless transition.”
Branch said his last Super Bowl six years ago “doesn’t seem that far away.” He stayed in touch with players from that team while he was in Seattle.
“Being a part of this team in the past and winning Super Bowls, you form this certain bond,” he said. “I always paid attention to the guys and seeing what they were doing. I was excited for them.”
There wasn’t much excitement for him in Seattle’s last two playoff games while he was on the team. He missed the first one with a calf injury, then had no catches in the second, a loss to Green Bay on Jan. 12, 2008.
But on Tuesday, he was beaming
“The couple years that I was over there we did OK, but we didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve,” Branch said. “I think coming back here and having the opportunity to do the same thing is a plus.”
Even though his wife wasn’t thrilled when the trade was made.
She said, “We have to move the kids and stuff?” Branch recalled. “I’m like, ‘They’ll be OK. Trust me, they’ll be all right.’ ”
Just like his football family.