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."

Curran: Relentless Patriots proving that living well is the best revenge

Curran: Relentless Patriots proving that living well is the best revenge

FOXBORO -- There's a clock on the wall in the weight room at Tom Brady's house.

When the Patriots lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game last January, Brady's father told me his son set the clock to count away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Super Bowl 51. That clock has just 13 days left on it now. It won't require a sad resetting this week.

Brady won't be around to see it hit zeroes. He'll be in Texas playing in his record seventh Super Bowl. As planned.

PATRIOTS 33, STEELERS 9

HERE THEY COME, ROGER

The Patriots are the last team the NFL apparatus wanted to see in Houston and now the boogeyman's at their door, proving that living well is the best revenge.

Nowhere to run to, Roger. Nowhere to hide. The rules apply to everyone and there's a rule that we all learn sooner or later is very true. What goes around comes around. We all have it coming, kid.

We imagine Brady is clearing his throat for the delicious last laugh, but he's said it a hundred different ways in the past four months: Vengeance and vindication aren't driving him. That's wasted energy. Poison.

He's focused on what's immediately in front of him while reminding himself time's fleeting. The best way for him to help his team during his four-game exile in September was to work out relentlessly, which he did so that when he returned he was as good as he's ever been.

And in his absence, his team understood the best way to honor him while he was gone was to take care of business. Which they did beginning September 12 in Arizona when, instead of playing rudderless football without their on-field leader, they began a 3-1 run with a combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.

"Yeah, well we never dwell on that," Bill Belichick began when I asked him Sunday night about the obstacles the team's had in front of it beginning in September and through the rest of the season. "We take the hand that we're dealt and play the cards . . .

"You referenced the beginning of the year, but it's been true in every game, really," Belichick added. "It's a credit to those guys. It's a credit to the depth on our team and the way that those guys prepare. They work hard. They don't know if they're going to get an opportunity or not and then when it finally comes and they do get it, they're usually ready to take advantage of it and help the team win. That's why we're where we are. We have a special team, a special group of guys that really work hard. They deserve the success that they've had. I mean, it's hard to win 16 games in this league. You've got to give a lot of credit to the players and the job they've done all year week after week. It's tough, but they come in and grind it out. They sit in these seats for hours, and hours, and hours, and prepare, and prepare, and go out there and lay it on the line every week. Again, it's a good group of men."

Beginning in the offseason with the trade of Chandler Jones to the start of the season with the Brady suspension to the stunning trade of Jamie Collins, the loss of Rob Gronkowski and a defense that was scoffed at on a weekly basis, the Patriots have weathered all of it to get to this point.

"One More" is the marketing slogan this team's had affixed to it.

"Bend Don't Break" is much more apt. Because they never did.

It's a phrase that's been framed as a slight by when used to describe the New England defense this season but safety Duron Harmon had a different interpretation.

"I don't know. I kind of like it," he said. "It just shows the type of toughness and mental toughness we have. Even when the situation might seem terrible or might seem bad, we have enough mental toughness to come out and make a positive out of it."

Harmon and Patrick Chung hauled down Steelers tight end Jesse James inches short of a touchdown just before halftime. The Patriots defense held after that, forcing Pittsburgh to settle for a deflating field goal. Instead of a 17-13 lead at halftime, the Pats led 17-9.

"Right then and there, a lot of people are thinking that's seven points, but that's a four-point turnover basically," said Harmon. "Just hold them to three and that really helped us with the momentum going into [halftime]."

When one considers all the collateral damage of Deflategate and the fortunes of the antagonists and protagonists since, it's . . . well, it's telling.

The Colts canned tattletale GM Ryan Grigson on Saturday and are in disarray. The Ravens missed the playoffs again. Owners who fingerwagged and wanted to see the Patriots brought to heel like John Mara, Bob McNair, Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson have teams that were either bounced from the playoffs or didn't even make them.

And the Patriots are headed to Houston anyway. Despite all their best efforts.

"I think it's a great story, but I think right now our focus is got to go out to Houston in a couple of weeks and try to win it," said Devin McCourty when asked about the revenge angle. "I think that makes the story even better."