Branch ties Super Bowl mark with 11 catches
And that was no small feat in this Super Bowl.
The leader of New England's unheralded receiving corps, Branch tied a Super Bowl record with 11 catches, accounting for 133 yards Sunday night in a 24-21 victory over Philadelphia that gave the Patriots their third championship in four years.
"He played unbelievable," fellow Patriots receiver David Givens said. "He always had it in him, and he's been doing big things for us all year."
While Branch didn't make it to the end zone, he played a role in all four scoring drives. The biggest catch might have been the last one -- a leaping 19-yarder over the middle that set up Adam Vinatieri's 22-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Branch leaped off the turf and defiantly signaled a first down, the sort of brazen move that Owens is known for. New England pushed its lead to 10 points, enough to hold off the Eagles.
And when it was done, Branch was named the MVP.
"They say big players step up in big games," Branch said.
Philadelphia's All-Pro receiver had a remarkable game, too, defying his doctor by playing just 6½ weeks after surgery. With a metal plate and two screws in his right ankle, Owens somehow had nine catches for 122 yards.
But Branch was even better, tying the great Jerry Rice (and Cincinnati's Dan Ross) for catches in a Super Bowl.
|Most career receptions in Super Bowl|
While most of the attention was on Owens in the days leading up to the big game, Branch had a nice, quiet week in Jacksonville -- not drawing nearly as much attention from the media horde.
Everyone knows him now.
"All the hoopla was about T.O.," Branch said. "He's a great player. He really sucked it up tonight. But I want to show I have the same type of talent as those guys."
Branch came up huge on a tone-setting drive to start the second half, making four catches for 71 yards. Linebacker Mike Vrabel finished it off with a 2-yard touchdown catch, but Branch did most of the heavy lifting.
In all, eight of his catches -- for 106 yards -- came on New England's scoring drives.
Before each game, Branch phones all his former coaches -- from Little League to high school and on through the college ranks, about a dozen calls in all.
"It's hard to get everything out," he said. "I'm crying half the time when I talk to them. But I want them to know that they pushed me to be the player I am. I always want to thank them for giving me their support."
Branch was a second-round pick out of Louisville in 2002, catching 43 passes his rookie year. He improved to 57 receptions the following year, but missed seven games this season with a knee injury. He finished with just 35 catches for 454 yards and four TDs.
Branch was so frustrated during the recovery process that he didn't travel to every road game. But all the hard work was worth it.
"My teammates kept pushing me to get better," he recalled. "They were telling me, 'We're going to need you soon.' I'm just thankful they didn't put me on IR," knowing injured reserve would have ended his season.
Not to worry. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said Branch was important enough to wait on, even though it left the Patriots a man short on their 53-player roster. Besides, they went 6-1 during his absence.
Branch impressed his teammates by putting the nasty looking injury out of his mind. During a game at Arizona, he was trying to make the tackle after a Cardinals interception, only to get clipped from behind by a teammate, offensive lineman Stephen Neal. The knee buckled, and Branch was fortunate the damage wasn't worse.
"He should get a lot of respect for the way he came back," receiver-cornerback Troy Brown said. "That was a pretty vicious injury. But when he came back, he showed no fear."
Branch has developed into one of Tom Brady's favorite receivers, usually getting the first look when a blitz is coming or a big catch is needed. No wonder. Branch has really come up big in the biggest game.
In last year's Super Bowl, Branch had 10 catches and a touchdown in a 32-29 victory over Carolina. Now, he's helped the Patriots become a team for the ages -- just the second to win three Super Bowls in four years.
"He's a very dynamic player," Brady said. "He can do it all -- getting open, doing great things after he caught the ball."
Brady was the MVP of New England's last two Super Bowl victories, and now his go-to receiver has an award, too.
"This is huge for him," Brown said. "I'm sure he's going to be all over the place now."
Take that, T.O.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press