Patriots focused on seizing opportunity

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Patriots focused on seizing opportunity

FOXBORO -- The phone call came a little over a year ago. When Deion Branch picked up, Bill Belichick was on the other end.

"We're thinking about bringing you back," Belichick said.

At the time, Branch was playing for the Seattle Seahawks, who had just come off of back-to-back losing seasons. Suddenly, Branch was closing in on a chance to re-join the Patriots -- perennial Super Bowl contenders -- and his thoughts began to race.

"That was the first thing that went through my mind," Branch said, recalling the phone conversation on Friday. "I was able to get back and play for the organization where I started, which is a blessing, and also to be in this position."

A realistic chance at another Super Bowl meant the world to Branch. He had been to two with the Patriots at the end of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, but four and a half years in Seattle without a shot at a ring had taken its toll.

He had made his money -- in 2006, Branch held out and was traded from New England to Seattle where he received a bigger contract than what the Patriots offered -- and by the time Belichick came calling last season, things had changed.

When the Patriots traded Seattle a draft pick in exchange for Branch, it was the veteran receiver's dream come true.

It's taken a year, but now he's back to where he always wanted to be: 60 minutes from a Super Bowl.

"This is what it's all about," Branch said of the upcoming AFC title game between the Patriots and Ravens. "Getting to this point and taking advantage of the opportunity. All 32 teams set out for this game right here, this is what it's about right here."

Branch is in his tenth NFL season. He knows how rarely chances at a Lombardi Trophy come along. So too do veterans Brian Waters, Shaun Ellis, Gerard Warren and Chad Ochocinco, all of whom have played at least 11 years in the NFL without a Super Bowl appearance.

But the younger Patriots realize the stakes of Sunday's game, too.

"What we've all been talking about is just taking advantage of the opportunity," Devin McCourty said. "Going home at night, studying more film. Studying everything. Doing everything we can . . . You don't get these opportunities every year."

The message has reverberated throughout Foxboro in the last few days, and for Matthew Slater, there's no escaping it. When he's not talking to teammates or coaches, he's getting an earful from his family on the importance of Sunday's game.

Slater's dad, Jackie, made it to the Super Bowl just once in his Hall of Fame career.

"I've gotten an e-mail every day from him this week just telling me to really not take this opportunity for granted," Slater said. "He played 20 years and only played in one Super Bowl.

"You realize, this is why we all play the game. Everybody's been brought here for games like this, to win games like this. He keeps telling me, 'You can't let anything come between you and what you have to do on the field on Sunday. Be extremely focused.' Obviously that message has been echoed around here all week. He knows what's at stake. I know what's at stake. We all do."

Tom Brady will play Friday night vs. Panthers

Tom Brady will play Friday night vs. Panthers

CHARLOTTE - Tom Brady didn't merely fly to Carolina because he likes having his ears pop. 

The Patriots quarterback will indeed play Friday night against the Carolina Panthers. Given Bill Belichick's stated objective of making Jimmy Garoppolo's preparation for the season's first four games a priority, it was uncertain whether Brady would be on the field even though he traveled. But with Brady a late scratch last Thursday against the Bears after gouging his thumb just before kickoff, his chances for game reps before his exile were waning. 

Brady made it very clear this week that he doesn't just want the game reps for tuning up and getting knocked around but because he believes it's his job and responsibility to be out there leading the team, regardless of where he'll be the first four weeks of the year. With him feeling that strongly about playing being important for his preparation and for his standing within the team, it makes sense for Belichick to give him reps. 

It's not known whether Brady or Garoppolo will start or how many series either quarterback will play Friday night.