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.
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
Branch was so frustrated during the recovery process that he
didn't travel to every road game. But all the hard work was worth
"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
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
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.