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INDIANAPOLIS — As Media Day was set to begin Tuesday morning, Patriots WR Deion Branch sat at his podium stationed in the southwest endzone of Lucas Oil Stadium when a smile broke across on his face. Who could blame him for being happy? The veteran receiver is back in the Super Bowl after a seven-year hiatus, looking to win his third championship ring. To make things even better, there was almost nobody waiting to bother the receiver who some figure could make the biggest impact of any playmaker on Sunday evening.
It has been like this all season for Branch. Reporters hover around record-setting slot receiver Wes Welker, chatty and personable TE Rob Gronkowski and part-time TE/part-time RB Aaron Hernandez, looking to find answers as to why the Patriots' offense is so good. And they leave the veteran wideout alone, just like many defenses do on the field.
"Each and every one of us has a role, so my job is just to go out and do that every single week," Branch said.
In 2011, Branch's role varied from week to week. Sometimes he was the team's go-to guy (eight catches for 129 yards in Week Two), but usually, he played in a complementary role to Welker and the tight ends. With only so many passes to go around, the veteran wideout was often the fourth target in the passing offense. He finished the season with 51 receptions, compared to 122 for Welker, 90 for Gronkowski and Hernandez's 79.
Talk to teammates and coaches, however, and they'll say that Branch has tremendous value, both on and off the field, despite the so-so statistics. Acquired last season in a trade with the Seahawks, seemingly to replace WR Randy Moss, Branch has done exactly what New England needs him to. After four-plus seasons in Seattle, where he was supposed to be a No. 1 receiver, he is back comfortable as a role player with the team that drafted him and the quarterback he spent his first four seasons with.
"Deion's a part of a very good skill group, everybody really complements each other," QB Tom Brady said. "Deion's smart, he's fast, he's quick, he does all those things you're looking for in a receiver. He can get open vs. man coverage, he finds the spots in zone, he has great hands.
"You know, I've thrown a lot of passes to Deion over the years, so I have a ton of confidence in him, hopefully he has a great game."
Head coach Bill Belichick agreed with his QB, saying that Branch, "has a big role for us. He's an experienced player, we ask him to play a lot of different positions, do a lot of different things for us. He's smart, he's instinctive, and he can do pretty much whatever we ask him to do because of his experience and skill set."
Branch's off-field contributions may even surpass his on-field ones. Within the team's locker room, he has emerged as a leader for his more-celebrated pass-catchers. As the only one of Brady's targets who has a Super Bowl ring, Branch works with teammates, handing down advice and leading by example.
"He's calm, composed, his whole professional approach to this game," Patriots WR and special-teams ace Matthew Slater said of Branch. "He's been in big games, he's made big plays in big games, he has that experience. He brings kind of that experience and leadership and sense of calm over our whole group. He's been great, obviously on the field for what he does, but off the field he's just a great teammate and great guy in the locker room."
Come Sunday, don't be shocked if Brady looks for his veteran target often. The last time the two were in a Super Bowl together — Super Bowl XXXIX vs. the Eagles — Branch played like an elite wideout. He made 11 catches for 133 yards, leading the Patriots to a 24-21 win and in the process, taking home the game's MVP award. With all the attention being paid to Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez, another record-books performance isn't out of the question.
"Deion's always come through in big games; he's a clutch player," Brady said.
When asked if he felt he'd show up huge on Sunday, Branch paused before saying, "given the opportunity I will." Then, like a player knowing he'd return to his spot in the endzone soon enough, he unleashed a giant smile.