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Alan Branch is enjoying what may be his best season

Game 12 preview: Patriots vs. Eagles
Game 12 preview: Patriots vs. Eagles

FOXBOROUGH — For someone who proudly marches to his own beat, Alan Branch seems to be fitting in nicely with a team known for uniformity, not individuality.

On the field, it's been a good match. Branch has started 10 straight games at defensive tackle and is an excellent run stopper, bringing strength, stability, and consistency to the Patriots' rushing defense, which had been ranked as high as No. 2 in the NFL.

Away from football, Branch is . . . different.

"Anything that anybody thinks is weird is what I tend to go to," he said.

Where he grew up in New Mexico, everybody liked the Dallas Cowboys. Branch despised the Cowboys. He's inquisitive, loves to read, and rarely thinks about anything that happened in the past, because "there's nothing you can do about it, and no reason to celebrate it."

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Asked what his profession would be if he weren't spending his ninth season in the NFL, Branch offered two.

"Skateboarding, or I'd be in a break dancing group — one of those two," he said. "I know everybody would be impressed because I'm 300-plus [pounds] on a skateboard or break dancing. My interests vary. I'm a different type of guy. I got that from my mom."

Valerie Branch must be proud, because Branch has carved out a nice role with the Patriots this season. He joined the team more than a year ago, signing in the middle of the 2014 season and playing the final 11 games, including all three playoff games. He didn't put up big numbers — 14 tackles — but defensive tackles rarely pad the stat sheet.

This season, with Vince Wilfork playing in Houston, there has been more playing time available to Branch. He's been on the field for nearly 34 percent of the defensive snaps (35 in each of the past two games) and is having arguably the best season of his career.

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Through 11 games, Branch has forced two fumbles — he had two for his first eight seasons combined — and has 20 tackles and one sack. He would have had a second sack, were it not for a defensive penalty on teammate Patrick Chung last Sunday in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter at Denver.

Branch brought down Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler for an 8-yard loss, but instead of it being third and goal from the 15-yard line, the Broncos were given an automatic first down at the 4. They scored on the next play to take the lead, then won the game in overtime, knocking the Patriots (10-1) from the ranks of the unbeaten.

The sack didn't count, but it contributed to Branch's best game among the 22 he's played as a Patriot. He had four tackles — one for loss — and was credited with two passes defended and one quarterback hit.

"Alan has done a good job for us," said coach Bill Belichick. "I thought he did a good job against Denver, but he's been pretty consistent all year. He's been steady, and it's certainly been a big advantage this year with him being able to come in at the beginning and not halfway through the season like he did last year. That has definitely helped him, and us."

Branch re-signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Patriots on March 18, after helping them win the Super Bowl (he had three tackles in the win over the Seahawks). Prior to joining the Patriots, he spent one season (2013) in Buffalo, two in Seattle, and four in Arizona with the Cardinals. Before that, he starred at the University of Michigan.

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How did a kid from Albuquerque wind up in Ann Arbor? It was a return home, of sorts. Both of Branch's parents are from Detroit, but David Branch played his college football in New Mexico, and that's where they stayed to raise their family. Alan grew up visiting Detroit often, so having extended family close by was a big reason he chose the Wolverines.

Branch was the first pick of the second round in the 2007 NFL Draft (No. 33 overall), and being selected by the Cardinals provided him with another kind of homecoming. Branch's first taste of NFL football had been in Phoenix during a Punt, Pass, and Kick competition at halftime of a Cardinals game, when he was in middle school. He didn't win, but he remembers it for a different reason.

"Growing up in New Mexico, we didn't have any professional sports," he said. "I didn't see a professional athlete, in person, until that competition in Phoenix."

He's been a run-stopping defensive lineman for years now, but that wasn't always the case. In high school, Branch played defensive line, fullback, linebacker, tight end, punter, and punt returner.

"I played everything except offensive line," he said. "Growing up, I was skinny and fast, so I was a running back. Then I got fat, so then I was a fast, fat running back. When I got to high school, I wound up going to tight end and they'd throw the ball up and I'd go get it. We didn't have anyone that was really able to catch punts, so I did that, too."

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Asked about his favorite position, Branch said, "Whichever one let me score. I had to change my mentality from my younger years to now, because I used to love scoring. Tackles are just as good nowadays."

He's still waiting for his first NFL touchdown, and with those break dancing skills, the celebration possibilities are intriguing. But Branch can be found dancing during warm-ups when the mood strikes. And he always seems to be laughing.

"Upbeat, comes to work happy. He puts us in a good mood," said fellow defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. "I don't think I've ever seen him in a bad mood. Unless we're on the football field, then he does what he does best. He plays big."

Behind the brawn — Branch goes 6 feet 6 inches, 350 pounds — is an eclectic intellectual.

Asked what he likes most about playing in the NFL, Branch doesn't mention money or fame, or winning a Super Bowl ring. He doesn't give the typical athlete answer, which says a lot about him.

"The thing I like personally is being in a locker room and seeing people from all different aspects of life," Branch said. "There's people from all parts of the country, people that are from the country, people that are from the city.

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"You just meet people from every walk of life, and I like that. I like talking to people, getting to know how they grew up and what got them here. I like that a lot."


Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.