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?

Curran: Patriots' success during Brady suspension is deliciously ironic

Curran: Patriots' success during Brady suspension is deliciously ironic

FOXBORO -- Bob McNair seems like a nice man. 

But the 27-0 prime-time embarrassment his team was handed Thursday was particularly tasty given the moronic observations McNair offered last summer regarding Deflategate. 

Showing the inch-deep knowledge of the case that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s operations people courted with their slanted or flat-out incorrect information leaks, McNair said in September of 2015: "What escalated the whole thing is that [Tom] Brady and the Patriots were going to cooperate fully, and then when it came down to it, they didn't. If it was J.J. Watt, I think he would have been cooperative, and it wouldn't be a question . . . I don't think J.J. would destroy his cellphone.

"I support Roger," McNair added. "I think he’s done a good job. He’s got the toughest job. Imagine the amount of stress he’s placed under, the people pulling from different directions. He’s got 32 bosses. I’m sure there are a few who aren’t happy with some of his decisions. He’s got to do, in his opinion, what’s in the best interests of the league."

This wasn’t a case of McNair just politely offering an opinion and moving on. He went on for a good long while. 

"Is there anything conclusive there? No, you don't have any conclusive evidence," McNair said. "But the whole idea is we want to make sure we have a competitive playing field that's level for everybody ... don't want people breaking the rules. In the minds of somebody in that organization, they thought it was important. They thought it would give them a competitive advantage, and that's why they did it . . . You just want to eliminate that kind of situation if you can.

"You know, when you look back on it, if Brady had just said, 'Look, my guys know I like a softer ball, and that's what I like, and so they do it. But I don't go out and check the pressure of the balls.' . . . I don't think there would have been an issue," McNair continued. "It would have been a problem with the guys on the training staff who deflated the balls, and the Patriots would have got some kind of minor penalty; it wouldn't have been a big deal."

The Patriots smashed Houston in Texas during the 2015 season with Brady at the helm. But there’s irony in Thursday’s 27-0 shutout while the Patriots were in the midst of a penalty McNair obviously was approved of. And the irony is magnified with the news the Texans lost J.J. Watt in the process. 

The first three Brady-less games proved to be revelatory as well. 

Sunday, two weeks after his Cardinals lost to the Patriots at home on a yanked field goal in the closing seconds, Arizona head coach Bruce Arians chose to mock and belittle his long-snapper, Kameron Canady. 

Arians is a pet of the national media because of his glibness and accessibility. But there was no chastising to be found after he said Canady needed to “grow the hell up” and that Canady’s problems had “nothing to do with anything but what’s between his ears.”

Not a peep about Carson Palmer throwing picks on every single one of the Cardinals final four drives -- the second time in four games dating back to last year’s playoffs that Palmer ran Arizona into the ground with picks. No singling out All-Pro Patrick Peterson, who got walked through by LeGarrette Blount on the Patriots' game-winning field goal drive and failed to scoop up a turnover against the Bills. No, Arians went hard after the long-snapper. And then cut his ass. Not that Canady didn’t deserve the release and maybe the tongue-lashing as well. But it’s revealing that Arians skates while there would the national media would have been seeking safe spaces if Bill Belichick suggested a player was a little mentally fragile. 

It was amusing last year to watch three franchises that were at the forefront of the torchlit stampede against the Patriots -- Indianapolis, Baltimore and the Giants -- faceplant to varying degrees. 

But no one could have expected the schadenfreude to continue even with Brady down. We’ve pointed this out before, but it’s worth circling back to now: If the Patriots deal Jimmy Garoppolo, the team will have recouped the first-round pick the Patriots the league confiscated and they’ll be able to do so because of the showcase that came as a result of Brady’s suspension. Meanwhile, Jacoby Brissett has given feedback that he’s very much on the right track and Brady’s avoided a month of wear-and-tear on a 39-year-old body.  

The league’s last desperate hope for seeing the Patriots lose at least one damn game during this suspension is . . .  Rex Ryan. And Rex has to get it done at Gillette in the third of three straight home games for the Patriots. 

It’s like the league ordered their whole damn Deflategate plan from ACME

Garoppolo, Brissett prove they are physically able to throw

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Garoppolo, Brissett prove they are physically able to throw

FOXBORO -- The Patriots have two injured quarterbacks on their roster at the moment, but they aren't so injured that they can't throw the football around a little bit. 

Both Jimmy Garoppolo (shoulder) and Jacoby Brissett (thumb) threw passes early on in the team's practice on Wednesday. They worked with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, as well as with assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski, and floated throws toward stationary targets. Starting out with quick-hitters, they eventually opened things up briefly and pushed the ball about 30 yards down the field. 

The practice had barely begun, and the passes were warm-ups, but it was clear that both players were physically able to throw. 

The entire 53-man roster and all 10 practice-squad players were present and in full pads for Wednesday's on-the-field work.