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?