Branch: We've been underdogs all year


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?

Blount powers his way to new career-high in return to Pittsburgh


Blount powers his way to new career-high in return to Pittsburgh

LeGarrette Blount's performance at Heinz Field was an ironic one because the 24 carries he received in New England's 27-16 win over Pittsburgh was more than twice the number of carries he got during his busiest days as a member of the Steelers in 2014.

Blount signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2014, believing he would be a significant part of the organization's plans. He found out relatively quickly that he was not -- not as long as Le'Veon Bell was in town and running well, at least. He averaged just six carries in his 11 games with the Steelers, and he was cut after he walked off the sidelines, frustrated by his lack of playing time, before a Monday night win over the Titans was over.

The Patriots quickly moved to sign Blount, and the match between player and organization has been a fit ever since. There are days where the football is in quarterback Tom Brady's hands for long stretches, and there are days where Blount is leaned on.

"As a running back, you always want the football," he said. "If we have 80 plays, you're going to want 80 carries. You just gotta be patient. When the opportunity presents itself, you just gotta make the most of it."

Sunday presented Blount with his share of opportunities and he capitalized. He ran for 127 yards (a 5.3 yards-per-carry average) and two scores against the Steelers, helping keep an aggressive defense at bay, and punishing his former coach Mike Tomlin for flooding the field with defensive backs when Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett were on the field.

"LG ran hard," Bill Belichick said. "Good ball-security. Good pad level. Made some tough yards, and he made a couple big-play, kind of explosive runs . . . He gave us some explosive plays, and we needed that, particularly when they cut it to a four-point game."

The Steelers made it a four-point game with a field goal before halftime, and then they made it a one-point game when they got another Chris Boswell kick to make the score, 14-13. That's when New England's 250-pound back came up large.

He ripped off gains of 11 yards, then 25 yards. Three plays later, Gronkowski was in the end zone on a 36-yard strike from Tom Brady.

"I thought we ran the ball great on that drive," Brady said. "We really got a hat on a hat and it gave LeGarrette some space to run. He's just so deceptive with his quickness. He's a big back but he's got great agility. He makes yards after contact. He gets guys in space and does a great job attacking the creases there. He had a great day today."

Belichick said those long carries helped "settle" things down as it kept the Steelers pass-rush on its heels when the Patriots were pressing to extend their lead.

"He gave us a couple of big runs there to . . . settle things down where it wasn't just a pass-rush game for them all day," Belichick said. "They had some good pressure early in the third quarter, kind of got us in some long-yardage situations. Holding penalties. Hit the quarterback. Forced the ball out quick. So his runs were able to settle us down. I thought our offensive line came through with some good blocking, as well as our receivers and the tight ends, obviously. We ran behind Marty and Rob a lot."

Through seven games, Blount already has a career-high for rushing touchdowns with eight. He's on pace to find the end zone 18 times, which would best Curtis Martin's franchise record of 14 scores in a single season. 

"We went in there with a game plan," Blount said. "We stuck to it, and we came out with a win."