FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Deion Branch was immediately excited when he found out he was being traded to the New England Patriots.
His wife, however, needed some convincing.
“It kind of hit her a little bit and I had to calm her down. I think it was more so with pulling the kids out of school,” Branch said after his first game back with his first team. “I’m like, ‘Baby, we’re going back home. … It will be all right.”’
So far, so good.
Branch is at home again with the New England Patriots, the team that made him a second-round draft pick in 2002 and watched him grow into a Super Bowl MVP. And he’s at home again catching passes from Tom Brady — nine receptions in Sunday’s overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens, a total he hadn’t hit since helping New England win back-to-back Super Bowls in 2004-05.
“That’s pretty exceptional for not playing here for four years,” Brady said. “It’s got to have been difficult.”
Brady threw it Branch’s way on the Patriots’ first offensive play — unsuccessfully. When the two did hook up on the next drive Branch received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“It’s like I never left,” he said. “It feels like it’s my family.”
Branch added a 5-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter and started off the game-winning drive in overtime with a 23-yard catch that put New England on the brink of field goal range. On third-and-2, Branch caught a 10-yard pass that set up the clinching field goal.
Now the twists that sent the brilliant but mercurial Randy Moss to Minnesota and brought Branch back from Seattle seem to have worked in New England’s favor.
“I’m used to being in this situation with this team and that guy (Brady),” Branch said. “I don’t want to talk about the past, but I haven’t felt this way in four years. That’s kind of crazy. I truly feel like when we got the ball on that last drive, we knew, ‘Hey, we’re going to go down. We’re going to get some points out of this and win this game.’ That’s the feeling we had. That’s h ow the guys took the field. I truly just haven’t had this feeling in a long time.”
But Branch wasn’t always so beloved in Foxborough.
A 2002 second-round draft pick from Louisville by the recently crowned, first-time Super Bowl champions, Branch played his first four seasons with the Patriots and helped them reach two more NFL title games. In them, Branch caught 21 passes for 276 yards, 13 first downs and a touchdown; he was the MVP of the 2005 game.
“I’ve always been impressed with Deion’s career. I didn’t see anything I didn’t expect,” said Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler, who wasn’t with the team during Branch’s previous tour. “He’s been here before, and he’s been in this situation — on a much bigger stage.”
But just a year after being named Super Bowl MVP, Branch embarked on contract holdout that prompted the Patriots to fine him and eventually trade him to the Seahawks for a first-round draft choice. Seattle signed him to a six-year, $39 million contract, but with injuries and Matt Hasselbeck he never came close to the 78-catch, 998-yard career highs he reached with Brady in New England.
He caught the Patriots’ interest again when they decided to part ways with Moss, who caught 50 touchdown passes in three-plus seasons — including an NFL record 23 in 2007 — but never really fit into the team’s low-profile, go-about-your-business-quietly style. Moss was shipped to the Vikings for a third-round draft pick, and the Patriots turned back to Branch.
Branch found out about the deal Oct. 11 — the Monday before the Ravens game — gave his wife an abbreviated pep talk and headed for Boston.
Now, New England has the anti-Moss.
Branch doesn’t give the Patriots as much of a deep threat, but he might make up for it on every other kind of route; those are the ones Moss seemed to lose interest in at the end. Branch has never been known to complain about his role in the offense or confront coaches, like Moss was accused of on his way out of town.
Branch’s nine catches in his first game back were as many as Moss had in the first four weeks combined.
“Here’s a guy who hadn’t been in our system for a few years,” New England quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien said. “And he came in and got in here after a redeye flight out of Seattle and practiced right away when he got here on Tuesday. … The most unique thing about him is his ability to come in here and pick things up right away after being away for a while.”
Even in the postgame interview room, the differences couldn’t be more stark: After his first game, Branch appeared capless — that’s two fewer headcoverings than Moss’ layered look — called reporters “Sir” and avoided the emotional if heartfelt rambling that seemed to secure Moss’ departure.
No one who saw Branch in his first go-round with the Patriots was surprised to see him pick up where he left off.
Least of all Branch.
“No, sir,” he said. “Tom and I have been away for four years and I honestly don’t feel like we missed a beat,” Branch said. “That just shows what type of guy he is, what type of player he is. Like I said, my job is just to get open.”