Branch: We've been underdogs all year

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Branch: We've been underdogs all year

FOXBORO -- Deion Branch believes this Patriots team has forged its own identity. It's not the team that lost in the Divisional Playoffs last year to the Jets. It's not the team that went to three Super Bowls in four years in the early part of last decade. And it's definitely not the 1996 team that will be at center stage Sunday when four of its members are present at the coin toss as honorary captains.

"We don't focus on things that happen in the past," Branch said Friday. "Every year the team is totally different."

That may be so, but the mentality of this year's team appears to be strikingly similar to the Championship-winning ones that preceded it. During those Super Bowl seasons, the Patriots always considered themselves underdogs, no matter what their record, or Las Vegas, said. Remember Rodney Harrison's post-Super Bowl "Nobody believed in us" rants? Both Super Bowl teams he played for went 14-2 in the regular season.

It appears as though that same cocoon of delusion -- the one that may have helped keep the Patriots sharp and gave them a little extra motivation in the early aughts -- is back surrounding the Patriots locker room.

Though the Patriots are hosting in the AFC title game, and favored in Las Vegas by a full touchdown, Branch quickly fired back at a reporter who asked how it felt to be the favorites in Sunday's AFC title game.

"Where? Where?" Branch said. He wanted to know who thought the Patriots would win. He seemed genuinely surprised that anyone had picked them over the Ravens.

The reporter followed up, "You don't think you're the favorites?"

Branch shook his head, locks of brown hair falling gently in front of his face.

"Nah. We've been the underdogs all year," Branch insisted. "Just let us think that way and we're cool. We weren't even supposed to be here according to the media. This team was supposed to be . . . We're cool with that. We're focused on the guys in the locker room. We worry about our game plan and our execution. Don't worry about all the rest of the stuff.

"That's my first time hearing that. I promise you. I haven't been on ESPN in about a month, two months. Any sports channel, not to single out ESPN. Guys in that locker room are focused. We're focused on one task, and that's taking care of our business."

It's true that the Patriots have had their detractors over the course of the season. Their defense is too porous to win a Super Bowl, some said. Their schedule was too easy; they're paper tigers, others implied.

But now, here they are, one win away from a Super Bowl. And favored to get there.

Some players, it appears, don't pay the predictions any mind.

"We've been favored at home in the playoffs the last two years," Wes Welker said Friday. "I don't think it's a big deal at all. We just have to understand that no matter what, we just gotta play well. That's what it comes down to."

For Branch to kick up that us-against-the-world mentality is an old-school Patriots move. It makes sense. He's one of the few that remember what it's like to win a ring in New England. He knows what it takes to get there. Pushing the "we've been disrespected" card worked before, and maybe Branch believes the team will benefit from it again this year.

The Patriots may not focus on the past. But if they can dig it up for a brief moment to dust off a classic motivational tactic before their biggest game of the season, why not?

Quotes, notes and stars: Red Sox make 'outstanding comeback' vs. Rangers

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Quotes, notes and stars: Red Sox make 'outstanding comeback' vs. Rangers

Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox’ 8-7 win over the Rangers:

QUOTES

* “(Matt) Bush has tremendous arm, but what we’ve seen . . . I don’t know that there’s anyone that throws a hard enough to get it by Mookie [Betts]. Just lightening bat speed . . . The dugout erupted when he caught it.” - Farrell said on Betts’ ninth inning homerun.

* “It was an outstanding comeback. Just a tremendous character win tonight by our guys. The work that our bullpen did tonight was just outstanding. ” - John Farrell said following the comeback win over Texas.

* “Koji comes back after a couple of rough outings and was vintage Koji here tonight.” - Farrell said on Uehara striking out the side in the ninth to earn the save

* “The homerun. Without that homerun, you don’t get to that wild pitch.” - Jackie Bradley said on what the Red Sox dugout was more excited about in the ninth.

* “Winning, to me that’s everything. I definitely want to go out there and throw the baseball better. I want to win myself. But at the end of the day I want the Red Sox to win.” - David Price said following the Red Sox win, despite his inability to keep the game close throughout the duration of his start.

NOTES

* David Ortiz extended his hitting streak to 10 games with his fourth inning single. He’s now 12 for his last 36 during his 10-game hitting streak.

* Sandy Leon’s ninth inning double was his 12th hit of the year. He’s now 12-for-22 (.545) to start his 2016 campaign. Four of his hits are doubles and he also has four RBI. 

* David Price’s 2.1-inning start is his shortest with Boston yet. The lefty gave up a season-worst 12 hits -- the most hits he’s given up since May 8th last season in a 6.1 inning start.

* Hanley Ramirez’s two-run homerun marks his third in the last ten games.

* The Red Sox improve to 22-3 when Jackie Bradley Jr. hits a homerun following his 13th homerun of the season.

STARS

1) Mookie Betts

Betts had over three hours between his two base hits, but his second proved the most important. He launched a 2-0 fastball into left center, tying the game in the ninth.

2) Jackie Bradley Jr.

Bradley laced a homerun into the right field second deck to put Boston in striking distance at 7-4. In addition to knocking in two runs, he scored in the ninth after he walked, starting the ninth inning comeback. 

3) Koji Uehara

Despite struggling of late, Uehara was called on to close and struck out the side to seal the win. He was the final piece of the 6.2 innings of relief from the bullpen that came in one of Boston’s biggest wins of the year.

Nick Friar can be followed on Twitter: @ngfriar

OFFSEASON

Kevin Durant solidifying invitations for free agent meetings, including Celtics

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Kevin Durant solidifying invitations for free agent meetings, including Celtics

The wheels of the Kevin Durant free agent train have been set in motion.

"Durant’s representatives at Roc Nation are working to solidify invitations" for meetings with a list of five teams, which includes the Boston Celtics, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski. The other teams listed are the Warriors, Clippers, Heat, Spurs and Thunder. The Nuggets, Knicks, Lakers, Rockets, and Wizards could "could still find audiences with him," but they are considered outsiders.

Wojnarowski says the Thunder remain the frontrunners, but "the Warriors have Durant's attention."

If Durant chooses the Warriors it could happen very quickly. Warriors restricted free agent Harrison Barnes could sign an offer sheet for a contract on July 1, which would mean the Warriors would have only have three days to match the deal. They'd likely need a decision from Durant before then, or they'd risk losing one of their valuable pieces without being able to fill his role.

Durant plans on making his decision before July 9 anyway, according to Wojnarowski, because that's when he's leaving for a publicity tour in the Far East.

The fact the Celtics are even on Durant's primary list shouldn't come as a surprise considering his actions after his game in Boston against the Celtics earlier this year. They do have tough competition though. Both the Warriors and Heat have the cap space to absorb Durant's likely max contract worth about $26.4 million, and the Spurs can easily create the space if necessary.

The Clippers are interesting though, because they'd have to deal one of their stars (Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, or Blake Griffin) to free the cap space to sign Durant. If he does choose the Clippers, maybe Danny Ainge could help Doc Rivers swing a deal. How about something involving Blake Griffin and Jae Crowder?

But the Celtics have an edge. Their the only team listed that can sign two max contract free agents. If Durant wants to play with his buddy Al Horford, or anyone else for that matter, the Celtics can make it happen easily. How about a 2007 draft class reunion with Durant, Horford, and Jared Dudley? It's an odd trio, but Dudley has already expressed interest in joining the Celtics.

No matter what happens, though, the Celtics are in the race. Celtics fans might be disappointed after Thursday night. But we're just getting started, folks.

Kevin O’Connor can be followed on Twitter: @KevinOConnorNBA

First impressions of the Red Sox’ 8-7 win over the Rangers

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First impressions of the Red Sox’ 8-7 win over the Rangers

First impressions of the Boston Red Sox’ 8-7 win over the Texas Rangers:

Boston’s offense is always in striking distance.

The Red Sox had an uphill battle from the get-go thanks to David Price’s tough outing.

But somehow they took advantage of Texas’ equally bad pitching—that just happened to be more spread out than Boston’s bad pitching.

If Jackie Bradley Jr. doesn’t earn a walk, or Sandy Leon doesn’t fight tooth and nail for a two-out double in the ninth, that Mookie Betts homerun can’t happen.

The Red Sox need another long outing from Steven Wright.

Obviously they’d prefer a strong performance -- but the knuckler may need to bite the bullet if he’s off Saturday night.

Boston’s bullpen has been used and abused of late, and needs some rest following the Chicago series and a 2.1 inning outing from Price.

Price continues to struggle against the Rangers in his career.

Even when he was able to walk out of the first with just the one run after a bases loaded double play, but couldn’t clamp down with two outs.

The biggest reason he struggled wasn’t his velocity—although it seemed down most of the night—but his location. He left a lot of pitches up in the zone and Texas is not the team you can do that with.

Although Price was bound to have a rough start, this start went worse than anyone could’ve anticipated. To say this was a bad start is putting it nicely.

Texas gave him a nice wake-up call. He still has room to grow.

Matt Barnes had a solid performance.

It wasn’t his best, but given the situation, he did well. First off, the Rangers are a very hot team and swing early in the count. Barnes left the ball up time after times, but only surrendered the one run.

Additionally, he entered the game far earlier than he’s used to -- in the midst of a blowout where his team was on the wrong end. That’s not an easy thing to walk into for a reliever, especially one who’s used to pitching late in tight ballgames.

He gave Boston a chance when the offense started to gain momentum.

Hanley Ramirez’s power continues to show.

Although he’s not hitting at the rate he did to start the year, Ramirez laced another homer against the Rangers Friday night.

This homerun may have been his most impressive, coming on a 1-2 slider away, driving it to straightaway center -- the deepest part of the ballpark.

Boston just saw what they look like when they almost blow games.

All season the talk around the league has been how explosive the Red Sox lineup is.

Well, the Rangers offense is right there with them. The league’s hottest team didn’t waist any time scoring, and had 15 hits before Boston pitching recorded an out in the fifth inning.

Although the Red Sox outslugged Texas late, they saw what a potent offense outside the AL East can do -- and how bad pitching can undo all of that.

Nick Friar can be followed on Twitter: @ngfriar