JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Half an hour after the Patriots had won their third championship ring, after the fireworks had been set off and the confetti had settled, after he’d been named the most valuable player, Deion Branch still had his gloves on. You never know when Tom Brady might fling another ball his way.
“I don’t think they were looking to throw me the ball that many times,” said the human Venus flytrap, after he’d caught 11 passes for 133 yards to tie the Super Bowl record. But once a wide-open Branch caught one across the middle for 16 yards on New England’s first play, he was Brady’s favorite target all evening long. “Every time you turned around,” said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, “Deion was catching the ball.”
Only San Francisco’s Jerry Rice and Cincinnati’s Dan Ross had caught that many in a title game, and nobody has caught 21 in consecutive Super Bowls. “I just try to cash in when I can,” Branch said.
Though Brady made a strong case for his third MVP, nobody was arguing that Branch deserved to be the first receiver to win the award since Rice in Super Bowl XXIII and only the fourth overall. “What can you say?” said Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard. “The guy stepped up and tied the record.”
It was Branch, as much as anyone, who got the Patriots here, burning the Steelers for the first and last touchdowns on a frigid night in Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game. And while he didn’t cross the goal line here, he kept his teammates chugging along with key catches on every scoring drive. “I was looking to find him today,” said Brady. “He was getting open and doing some great things out there.”
On the first scoring drive that tied the game at 7-7 late in the second quarter, he caught a 7-yarder to give New England a first down on the Philadelphia 23. On the opening drive of the second half, which Weis and coach Bill Belichick scripted during the long intermission, Branch caught four passes - for 8, 27, 15 and 21 yards - to set up Mike Vrabel’s juggle job for the touchdown that put the Patriots ahead, 14-7.
”He made some nice catches in decent coverage,” said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. “The ball was right on target. Those were good throws.”
But the best of them was the 19-yarder on an in-cut on second and 13 which, combined with a roughing-the-passer call, brought the ball from midfield to the Philadelphia 16. “That was the catch of the game,” declared Weis.
That play set up Adam Vinatieri’s field goal, which put New England up, 24-14, with 8:40 to play and provided the victory cushion. “Deion had a great game today,” saluted receiver David Givens. “He made some unbelievable catches and ran some great routes. He got open and Tom just put the ball in the right spot.”
No man did more to put a third ring on his teammates’ fingers, but Branch wasn’t claiming sole credit. “It didn’t make any difference who won the MVP,” he said. “I’m just thankful to be part of this team, man.”
Mostly, Branch was thankful just to be in uniform after injuring his knee in the second game of the season and missing two months. “I’m glad that at the time I hurt myself, that Coach Belichick and his staff didn’t put me on injured reserve,” he said. “They had the faith that I could come back and contribute to the team. Because if I was on the IR, I wouldn’t be standing here.”
If his old high school offensive coordinator had his way, Branch never would have put on a helmet. He was too small, too frail. “He kicked me off the middle school team bus because he didn’t want me to get hurt,” Branch said. “Coach Coleman Kemp. I’m going to put him on the spot. He says to this day he didn’t do it. But he did.”
No hard feelings from Little Big Man, though. Branch will be glad to give his old coach a ride in his new Caddy, which comes with the MVP. “All the guys will be riding in it anyway,” Branch figured.