FOXBORO - Sunday night, a writer from Philadelphia asked Deion Branch if he looked across the line of scrimmage at the Eagles and thought back to his brilliant performance in the 2004 Super Bowl against those Eagles. Beyond the fact it's almost seven years in Branch's rearview, when one considers all the things Branch has seen and done since, you can appreciate why Branch simply laughed. "That's a loooong time ago," Branch answered. "Long time. I can barely ever remember that. It's been a minuteThe 32-year-old has been in the league for 10 seasons and is on the third and final act of his career. And this final act has been a stirring one. On Sunday, Branch had 6 catches for 125 yards. So far this year, he's got 45 catches for 428 yards and 4 touchdowns. Over the next five games, he could approach his best single-season as a Patriot. In 2005 Branch had 78 catches, 998 yards and 4 scores.He does things on the field with Tom Brady that make it seem like they share a cerebellum. The broken play, 63-yarder in the first half Sunday was an instance of that. "You have two smart guys, both very instinctive players," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained Monday when asked how Brady and Branch are able to communicate so well. "If something comes up that you haven't done or talked about before . . . what they would do would probably most of the time be what you want them to do. So that puts them pretty much on the same page to begin with. Add in the experience and reps that they've had together . . . I'm sure that's added to it and doing it on the field in live game situations adds to it."Belichick spent time Monday talking about hownaturally gifted Branch and Brady arein the passing game. "Deion's a very instinctive receiver," Belichick noted. "He has a great sense of timing of when the quarterback isready to throw the ball, when he needs to be open, when to get open and Tom, from his position, has that same sense of what the receiver should do in certain situations. And that's almost always what Deion would do."Off the field, Branch is unique as well. He brings no wariness to his dealings with the media, no condescension, nothing adversarial. He is, in short, a pro. "Great to have on the team," Belichick said of Branch. "Always got a smile on his face. Alert, attentive. Likes to practice, likes to work. Adds a lot to the team environment . . . Great leader, great example for all of us because of the way he goes about his job and how professional he is. He's always got a lot of energy."He may have energy, butafter the aforementioned 2005 season, he lost patience. Irritated that his contract hadn't been reworked and witha year left on it, Branch held out on thePattriots. Ultimately, Branch was dealt to Seattle where he made close to 40 million but didn'trealize anywhere close to the same success on the field. The Patriots, who had no receiving answer to replace Branch in 2006, paid more dearly for being unable to work a deal than Branch did. They blew a very realistic chance at a fourth Super Bowl in five seasons, choosing not to pay Branch while making Brady spend the season throwing to Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel and Benjamin Watson. But by last season, the contract issues had been all but forgotten. "I never had a problem with Deion on the field," Belichick said. "Never had a football-related problem with Deion. He's always been great to coach. Contracts are contracts. But as far as football, as a player-coach relationship it's always been good with him. Never been a problemHe came back right after the Patriots dealt Randy Moss last October. Now, in 22 games with the Patriots since returning, Branch has 93 catches, 1,446 yards and 9 scores. He's neither as fast or quick as he once was. Crafty would be the word to best describeBranch now. And trusted. Unlike the other 30-plus guy the Patriots brought aboard this preseason to whom they're paying much more than they are to Branch . For a guy who always knows how to find the right spot, Deion Branch is currently in a good spot.
LeGarrette Blount knows where he wants to be for 2017. Ever since he re-joined the Patriots in 2014 following a short stay in Pittsburgh, the 250-pound back has been very open about how he wants to play out the rest of his career in New England.
Those feelings haven't changed, even as he faces free-agency after having recorded the best season of his seven-year career.
"I just want to make sure that I go to this free agency with an open mind, knowing that I definitely want to go back to New England," he told NFL Total Access on Monday. "I love it there. I love the culture. I love the players. I've become close with a lot of the guys. Obviously you know how my running back group is.
"We'll cross that bridge whenever we cross it. On that point, I feel great. I'm in amazing shape. I feel like I could play 100 more years if I have to."
Blount finished 2016 with career-highs in attempts (299) yards (1,161) and touchowns (18). His ability to help the Patriots close games in the fourth quarter was notable throughout the course of the season, and he was among the most effective goal-line backs in the league. His 18 rushing scores are a franchise record.
Toward the end of the season, as Dion Lewis worked his way back into the Patriots offense, Blount had his workload cut into, and his fumble in the Super Bowl was a near-catastrophic moment -- his devastated reaction to which was caught expertly by NFL Films. But a big-picture view of Blount's year would reveal that he posted the most prodictive "big back" season the Patriots have had in more than a decade.
Blount signed a one-year deal with the Patriots last offseason after seeing his 2015 prematurely ended by way of a hip injury. He turned 30 in December.
Jimmy Garoppolo can't help but hear trade rumors that involve his name. He heard all about them during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Now his mom's keeping him up to date.
"My mom loves telling me the news updates," Garoppolo told ESPN's Adam Schefter, "so she’s all over that stuff, but it’s been working really well . . .
"I’m telling you, she could be your assistant. She’s all over the place. Her and my dad on Twitter and stuff like that. I don’t even think they know how to tweet, but they always have something going on . . .
"They know what to hit me with and what to keep quiet. They know me so well that they know what I’d like to hear and what I don’t need to hear. There’s a couple slip-ups here and there, I’m not going to lie to you, but they’re just so excited about it. It’s an exciting time, and they’re loving it."
Garoppolo tried his best to deflect questions about his future as he prepared for Super Bowl LI, but he could only insulate himself so much from those conversations. After six quarters of well-played football, he's chummed the waters for quarterback-starved franchises. As the draft nears, offers are expected to hit the Gillette Stadium offices, and it will be up to Bill Belichick and his staff to determine whether they should part ways with Tom Brady's backup.
Schefter asked Garoppolo about one team in particular that could be interested: the Chicago Bears. Their general manager Ryan Pace is an Eastern Illinois alum, like Garoppolo, and Garoppolo is a Chicago-area kid.
"I get asked about [that possibility] all the time from my friends and family back in Chicago," Garoppolo said. "They’re good reporters, my family. But I keep telling them I really don’t know how it would feel until . . . if it was to happen, I wouldn’t know how I’d feel until it did, you know? So it’s kind of one of those things, it’s hard to say right now."
Garoppolo added: "For the most part I am just trying to stay level-headed, trying not to think about it, over think it too much because at the end of the day I am still under contract. It is not my decision if I get traded or if I don’t, so I am just trying to take it all in stride. At the end of the day, you just have to enjoy it. The NFL, it is a hard place to be, hard place to succeed and when you get an opportunity you have to go and take advantage of it."
The idea of getting an opportunity, though, is an enticing one. Before the 2016 season, Garoppolo was very open about how he looked forward to his opportunity to start with Brady suspended for the first four weeks of the season. And with Schefter, he acknowledged that there are times when it's hard not to be impatient when you're the guy behind the guy.
"There’s times," Garoppolo said. "Obviously the kickoff happens and you are ready to roll. The juices get flowing again. You get the adrenaline, the butterflies. It’s football, you have to love the atmosphere . . .
"We all play the game. We all want to be out there on the field and get an opportunity to play. I guess we will cross that bridge when we get there is probably the best way to put it. We’re competitors at the end of the day. We want to be out there, I want to be out there competing and playing with my teammates.”