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?

Thomas shines again in fourth quarter, Celtics beat Hornets, 108-98

Thomas shines again in fourth quarter, Celtics beat Hornets, 108-98

BOSTON –  Late in the fourth quarter, the TD Garden was rockin' when the fans charted chanting, 'M-V-P, M-V-P' which is become a nightly serenade of sorts for Isaiah Thomas. 

It's extremely wishful thinking on Celtics Nation's part, but there is no denying his status as one of the game's best players this season. 

He delivered yet another work of art on Monday, scoring 17 of his game-high 35 points in the fourth quarter in leading Boston to a 108-98 win against Charlotte. 

And he did the way he always seems to do it, mixing in 3-pointers with drives to the baskets and an occasional assist to keep the collapsing defenses that surround him relatively honest. 

But the numbers he's consistently posting only tell part of the narrative to what has been a fairy tale of a season for the 5-foot-9 guard who continues to defy odds on a nightly basis. 

Not only is he producing at a high level, but he's elevating the play of those around him which is reflected in the team's overall success.

Boston (26-15) hits the halfway point with its best record under fourth-year coach Brad Stevens and best by the franchise since a 32-9 start to the 2010-2011 season.

The Celtics have now won eight of their last 10 games, and 13 of 16 as they steadily pull away and establish themselves at worst being the third-best team in the East.

And against the Hornets, they got the victory with a nice blending of what they do best – shoot three-pointers and play solid, physical defense.

The game could not have gotten off to a better start for the Boston Celtics, opening with a 10-2 run that put the Hornets on their heels quickly.

Not surprisingly, the Hornets rallied to take the lead in the first quarter before Boston’s second unit stepped up.

Leading the way in the final minute of the first quarter was Jaylen Brown, just minutes removed from a moving pre-game speech honoring the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on MLK Day.

With Boston trailing 30-29, Brown scored the final five points of the quarter to give Boston a 34-30 lead.

The second quarter saw both teams pull ahead by slim margins, neither showing an ability to pull away and take full control of the game.

But again it was the Celtics making all the necessary plays at both ends of the floor in the closing moments.

Trailing 50-48, Boston would close out the half with an 11-3 run to lead 59-53 at the half.

In the third quarter, Boston began to give itself a little more breathing room fueled in large part by their defense which not only limited the Hornets scoring but took advantage of great spacing to get open jumpers or baskets in the paint with little resistance or help-side defense.

A back-to-the-basket hook shot by Al Horford gave Boston a 77-67 lead, the game’s first double-digit margin.

The Celtics increased their lead to 12 points following a pull-up jumper along the baseline by Avery Bradley who was back in the lineup after missing the previous four games with an Achilles injury.

Going into the fourth, the Celtics were ahead 80-71.

Off day for Tuukka Rask plays into rough loss for the Bruins

Off day for Tuukka Rask plays into rough loss for the Bruins

BOSTON – Many times this season Tuukka Rask has bailed out the Bruins when the team was at less than their best.

Monday afternoon was not one of those times as the Bruins goaltender was knocked out of the game after two periods on the way to a listless 4-0 shutout loss to the New York Islanders. Rask allowed three goals on 15 shots in the game’s opening 40 minutes, and was responsible for a very soft goal during the Isles’ three-score barrage in the second period.

After the game Rask wasn’t ducking responsibility for the subpar performance, and admitted he was simply beaten to the short side post on a bad angle shot from Islanders forward Josh Bailey for the soft-serve special.

“I was just late. I picked the wrong seal. It’s one of those [goals] that I should have stopped,” said Rask. “Claude [Julien] mentioned [not taking the Isles lightly] before the game, and the last game we played here they got us. It was a bit of a flat game again last time, and we just woke up too late today. We didn’t want to underestimate them. Any team in this league is good even though the standings might show otherwise. We just never got it going.”

Rask was being kind because the Bruins never actually woke up at all in the first B's shutout loss to the Islanders on home ice in franchise history, and that includes when the Finnish netminder was yanked after the second intermission.

Julien’s act of pulling Rask from a 3-0 game was clearly designed to spark the struggling hockey club, but it did nothing to breathe life into a dead hockey club that simply allowed another goal playing out the string in the third period.

“There are two things that can happen. No. 1, you hope you can spark your team because of the performance in front of him,” said Julien. “If it doesn’t spark your team, [at least] you’re not wasting your number one goaltender’s energy.”

One would expect that Rask will be back between the pipes on Wednesday night against the Red Wings in Detroit, and in hindsight perhaps this Monday matinee might have been a good time to see what Zane McIntyre has to offer as the backup. Instead it will go down as an “off” game for Rask and another inexcusable no-show on home ice for the Black and Gold.