By Howard Ulman Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — He plays offense. He’s won at least two Super Bowls, and he was the MVP the last time the Patriots won the NFL championship.
Know who it is?
“I’d have to say Tom,” New England safety Patrick Chung said Monday. Nope, not Tom Brady.
The same question seemed to stump running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a few seconds, too. Then he said it’s really not important who got the honor in a game where the biggest reward is the Vince Lombardi Trophy that goes to the NFL champion.
“To me, MVPs don’t matter,” he said. “The only thing that really matters is us going out there and performing well.”
And it doesn’t matter to Deion Branch, either. He was the Super Bowl MVP when the Patriots beat the Eagles 24-21 seven years ago for their third championship in four years. He’s been overlooked a bit this season, with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez grabbing most of Brady’s passes and the headlines.
“That’s cool,” said Branch, who has that MVP trophy stored safely in a glass case at his home. “I just do my job. I can’t worry about who’s controlling it and who’s saying A, B, C, D. I just do my job I’m not here to be the one that (says), ‘Hey I need all the attention.’ That’s not me.”
His contribution doesn’t escape the discriminating eye of coach Bill Belichick as he prepares his team for the Super Bowl against the New York Giants on Sunday.
“I couldn’t imagine anybody on the team not thinking that Deion Branch has a tremendous importance to our football team,” Belichick said. “I don’t care if they play offense, defense or wash the towels.”
Brady was MVP of the Patriots first two Super Bowl wins in 2002 and 2004. Then he threw for two touchdowns among his 23 completions in their next championship game.
But it was Branch, who caught nearly half of them, who was MVP after tying a Super Bowl record with 11 receptions.
Then, after one more season, he was gone, traded during a contract dispute after the opening game of the 2006 season to Seattle for a draft choice. Brady was devastated to lose his friend and the receiver who could adjust his planned route with just a pre-snap glance from his quarterback.
Then he felt much better when Branch made the cross-country trip back for a reunion.
The Patriots obtained Branch in a trade with the Seahawks on Oct. 12, 2010 for a fourth-round draft choice to replace Randy Moss, who was traded to Minnesota. Branch had 48 catches in 11 games with New England last season and another 51 in 15 games this season.
But Welker led the NFL with 122 receptions, Gronkowski set a league single-season record for tight ends with 17 touchdown catches and Hernandez, a tight end versatile enough to make big plays at wide receiver and running back, had 79 receptions.
Welker has caught at least 111 passes in four of his five years with the Patriots. Gronkowski and Hernandez, fun-loving second-year pros, are revolutionizing the tight end position historically known for players who block well and occasionally break away for long gains.
Branch, simply, just produces in the shadows of those stars.
“It’s easy to overlook a guy like him in their offense because they’re so tight-end focused and those are the guys who are scoring touchdowns,” Giants linebacker Matthias Kiwanuka said, “but he obviously creates matchup problems. If you want to assign your best corner to a Wes Welker or somebody else, or you want to put your safety down on a tight end, then (Branch) is going to create an issue for you, but we have the personnel to get it done.”
Branch is a solid blocker for his size and a precise route runner who can adjust on the fly. And he can make the big play. In a 45-10 divisional playoff win over Denver, he caught a 61-yard touchdown pass.
“I don’t know how many guys make that play for us,” Belichick said.
It’s the kind of play the Giants will try to prevent.
“People who actually play against him, they understand how good Deion is,” New York safety Antrel Rolle said. “Deion is a veteran of this league. He understands all the tricks to this game and, most of all, he’s great for their system. He fits their system extremely well. So I think Deion definitely gets his due, maybe not in the media or in the press, but within this team as an organization I feel he definitely gets his due.”
Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said a player’s contribution in each game depends on what offensive or defensive packages a team uses. It could emphasize the tight ends or Welker or even the running game.
And, on Sunday, maybe even Branch.
“You never know,” Wilfork said. “He might have another MVP game.”