Patriots' Branch: 'We're a lot better than last year'

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Patriots' Branch: 'We're a lot better than last year'

FOXBORO - The Patriots came within inches and a healthy Rob Gronkowski ankle of winning the Super Bowl last February on a Hail Mary pass in Indianapolis.

Laments piled high.

But this year, in the eyes of Deion Branch, the Patriots are even better, despite winning one less game in the regular season.

"We want to make this team, the 2012 Patriots team, a special team," said the veteran wideout. "Each year is going to be something different. Were a lot better than we were last year. We dont have the same players. That team, the 2011 team, was totally different from this year."

The 33-year-old Branch is finishing his 12th season and acknowledged that there are fewer games ahead of him than behind him.

"I think thats the most important thing that you just said, going into my (12th) year and Im still having a lot of fun," said Branch. "I love playing the game. I enjoy being in the locker room, being around my teammates and I think this is what its all about. We spend so much time together as players. This is where we want to be, this is the position we want to be in and hopefully we can better ourselves as the postseason goes on.

Branch is fatalistic about his future in New England and whether he has another season left in him.

"Trust me, however the marbles fall, I just let them fall. There are a lot of things you cant control in life. Trust me, if I was one of the personnel guys, Id be around every week until Im 40, 45 years old, but thats not my decision. If I was one of the personnel guys but I dont make those decisions."

A few other musings from Branch during his time with the media:

Q: (On getting the ball out quickly offensively)

DB: Trust me, we want to make sure we get the ball out of Toms Brady hands and make sure that were doing what were supposed to do and were where were supposed to be at for Tom. We cant worry about what the front line is doing. We have to do our job. I think so far everything has been good. We have been doing it and right now we need to do a little bit more for the guys to make sure were down the field where Tom wants us to be and I think well be OK.

Q: What are the differences between Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph?

DB: I think theyre both about the same. Both of the guys are pretty physical guys, very instinctive players. Theyre great with the ball; they have a lot of great hand-eye coordination. Both of those guys make plays on the ball. I think the safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning both of those guys are very active as well, especially in the run game. I think they have the right guys in place to run the system that theyre running.

Q: Do you still get pumped up for the postseason?

DB: Always. I get pumped up for the regular season games, all of it. Its a blessing just to play this game and now to be in the position that were in.

Q: You have a lot of guys on this team who play big roles who have never been in the postseason before. How do you tell them what its going to be like?

DB: I think the only thing is we both have film on a game from a couple weeks ago. I think thats about it. As far as what the score was, the game that we won four or five weeks ago doesnt matter. This is a one-game season. We play each other at 4:30 Sunday, thats the only game that matters, for both teams, especially for us.

Q: Does it help to look at their most recent game from last week as opposed to looking at the film from your game with them in December?

DB: Its good but the difference is theyre playing Cincinnati. We know for a fact that its going to be a totally different game plan. We dont do the same things that Cincinnati does. It still rolls back to the film that we have of each other. Once the game starts, theres going to be a bunch of different things theyre throwing around on both sides of the ball. Once the game settles down, we should see exactly what theyre doing.

Q: Do you have to wait for them to start the game to see what theyre doing?

DB: No. I think our biggest thing is to make sure we come out and start fast, regardless of what theyre doing. We have a great game plan and I know were going to continue to progress as the week goes on. Today we started with some great plays, went out and executed those plays and were expecting the rest of the week to be the same. We want to make sure we start fast.

Q: Tom Brady needs just one more win to be the all-time winningest quarterback in the postseason. What is his demeanor as he leads the team in the playoffs?

DB: You see it in the classroom, you see it on the practice field. This is the same leader that when I came into the league in 2002, hes still the same way. Hes still motivating guys, pushing guys. Hes a perfectionist and we all strive for it. At the same time, we all know that were going to make some mistakes but lets make sure we do a little bit more, make a lot more plays than our opponents and thats what its all about.

Q: Some people say that you guys lucked out. What do you think about that?

DB: Anybody can say that. Just like we felt like we threw a bunch of games early in the season. We got the number two seed because thats what we deserved. We put ourselves in that position. We went out and didnt take care of business on our own so we had to depend on someone else. I think most of all, theres nothing we can do to control that part. We can just go out and play and the position we were at with the seeding, it is what it is.

Q: What about some people calling the Texans a cupcake game?

DB: No, trust me, youre going to see a different Texans team. That we all know, I promise you that. Theyre a great team. Theyve been a great team all season long. Unfortunately they ran into a couple stumbles but thats football. Trust me, it wont be the same team that we played five weeks ago.

Q: How big of an advantage could it be to have Rob Gronkowski back?

DB: Itll be great. It will be big for us. Im pretty sure the coaches are going to continue to install Gronk through the game plan to make sure he gets his touches and hes around the ball.

Q: How about thinking about how the opportunities are more limited now?

DB: Exactly. This is what its all about now, the opportunity. Just make sure Im there for my team whenever my name is called upon; just doing my job.

Q: Where did you watch the first game when the team played the Texans on Monday night?

DB: Me and my wife watched the game in the basement.

Q: Up here?

DB: Yeah, I was here.

Q: How fired up were you for the game even though you werent playing?

DB: It felt good just to see the guys doing the things that they did do in the game. You always know it and because Im around it, but when youre away from it and youre watching as a fan, I was very pleased and very happy to see that. Its really nothing new because we can do a lot of great things if we go out and execute our plays the way were supposed to; that type of performance.

Q: Do you talk to the TV when youre watching the game?

DB: No, I actually have it on mute. I put the television on mute.

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."