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?

Julien: 'A lot of problematic things' in Bruins loss to Avalanche

Julien: 'A lot of problematic things' in Bruins loss to Avalanche

BOSTON – The Bruins simply weren’t ready to play on Thursday night when the puck was dropped against the Colorado Avalanche at TD Garden. 

They fell down quickly by a 2-0 score, had a couple of completely inept power plays in the first period that sucked all the game’s momentum away from them and received some subpar goaltending from Anton Khudobin on the way to a 4-2 loss to the lowly Avs. About the only B’s person above reproach in this one was David Pastrnak after scoring a pair of goals in the second period to get Boston back into the game, but it all fell short in a very frustrating, lackadaisical loss to a Western Conference team that isn’t very good. 

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Needless to say B’s coach Claude Julien wasn’t too happy after a loss where the Bruins might have had more success with a smarter approach to holding the puck. 

“There were a lot of problematic things [in the loss]. No doubt that the power play could have helped us in the first period, and failed to do that. They’ve got to be better,” said Julien. “We needed some saves tonight, and we didn’t get them. [Anton Khudobin] has got to be better. 

“A lot of things here that we can be better at, and take responsibility [for]. But at the same time, you got to move on here.  It’s one of those nights that had we been smarter from the get go, we would have had a chance.”

Clearly it was about a lacking group effort when dissecting the loss, and the minus-3 for David Krejci on Thursday night marked back-to-back negative performances from the playmaking Czech center in big spots. The goaltending was shoddy with Anton Khudobin allowing four goals on 22 shots for Colorado, and unable to make plays on a couple of Colorado shots from outside the painted area that built up the Avs lead in the first place. 

But it was also very much about the inability of the Bruins to generate consistent offense outside of David Pastrnak’s offensive burst in the second period, and the complete breakdown of the Boston power play in the opening 20 minutes. The Bruins struggled to enter the zone in their first PP possession of the game, and then allowed a Nathan MacKinnon shorthanded goal after Torey Krug futilely dove at the blue line to try and keep the puck in the offensive zone. 

The Krug misplay at the offensive blue line gave MacKinnon a clear path the net, and he buried a wrist shot past Khudobin to get the one-sided loss rolling. Beyond the costly mistakes that ended up in the back of the net, the Bruins looked sloppy and slow-reacting in their breakouts and more than willing to settle for outside perimeter shots.

That doesn’t exactly make for a winning combo even when it comes against a flawed, underachieving team like Colorado, and especially when it comes less than 24 hours after a hard-fought road game in Washington DC. 

“I think we were still sleeping there early in the game and they were able to capitalize on their opportunities. We couldn’t claw our way back,” said Brad Marchand, who picked up an assist on David Pastrnak’s second goal of the night on a perfect dish for the one-timer. “I think it was definitely a mental [block]. You’re able to battle through that physical fatigue. It was more the mental mistakes and not being prepared right off the hop of the start of the game. Again, that’s kind of where we lost it.”

The sleepwalking Bruins lost Thursday night’s valuable two points as soon as the opening puck was dropped against the Avalanche, of course, and the Bruins never got out of lollygag mode at a time when intensity should have been automatic. 

THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Chiefs hold off Raiders 21-13 to take control of AFC West

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THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Chiefs hold off Raiders 21-13 to take control of AFC West

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Tyreek Hill had touchdowns receiving and on a punt return, Kansas City's defense made life miserable for Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, and the Chiefs beat the Raiders 21-13 on a frigid Thursday night to take control of the AFC West.

Charcandrick West also had a touchdown run for the Chiefs (10-3). They moved into a first-place tie with Oakland (10-3) but holds the tiebreaker with two wins over their longtime divisional rival.

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