Deion's feeling lucky

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Deion's feeling lucky

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

There's no such thing as beginner's luck in the NFL, but beginners can still get very lucky.

Does that make sense?

Basically, what I'm saying is if you come into this league as a rookie and immediately start taking care of business, then it's not an accident. Of course, a fast start doesn't guarantee a trip to Canton, or even the Pro Bowl (that would have flowed a lot better if the game was still held in Hawaii or if I hadn't pointed it out), but at the very least it means you can play.

If a rookie receiver goes out and grabs 11 balls for 150 yards and a touchdown, you're not going to say, "Eh, beginner's luck." That's not how it works. You'll be impressed, excited, and either run and get him on your fantasy roster, or wish awful things on the friend who beat you to the punch. Guys don't luck into those numbers. They earn them. They deserve them.

So, there's the argument against "beginner's luck" in the NFL.

Deion Branch is an example of a rookie who got very lucky. The kind of luck that takes a young, somewhat unheralded receiver out of Conference USA and pairs him with one of the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

From the very beginning of Branch's time in New England, we knew the kid could play. First of all, he was easily the fastest receiver the Pats had had since a young Terry Glenn. OK, maybe he wasn't faster than Tony Simmons, but certainly quicker (and also knew how to play football). Not to mention Branch had the hands, heart, and boisterous, borderline-obnoxious confidence that typically breeds success at that position.

He paid dividends right away, too, with touchdowns in each of his first two games, and a Week 4 coming out party in which he diced up the Chargers for 13 catches and 128 yards.

At the time, we were all still a little jaded by what had happened with Glenn, so maybe we tempered our expectations to a certain extent. But we knew he had something special. We knew we had something special.

But plenty of "special" player comes through this league and fizzle out faster than you can say Peter Warrick. The ones who stick are the guys who not only have the skills, but, among other things, are lucky enough to have been drafted into a system that best allows them to put those skills to work whether it's the right offense, the right coach, or perhaps most importantly, the right quarterback.

In Branch's case, it was probably all three. But it's the last one that made the biggest difference.

"I haven't felt this way in four years . . . " he said after the game, speaking just about as genuinely as humanly possible. "Playing with this guy, he makes you feel a little bit more than what you really are. I give him so much credit, because he deserves it. I wish every receiver had an opportunity to play with this guy, because he's amazing."

Of course, Branch deserves some of the blame for why it had been four years since he felt the way he did on Sunday. Despite the fact that he'd had the fortune to be drafted by a perennial Super Bowl contender, and to play alongside the greatest friend an NFL receiver could have, Branch forced Bill Belichick to make the deal with Seattle. He fought his way out of town.

That's not to say he was without reason. Regardless of the circumstances that had facilitated his success, Branch (and the same goes for David Givens) had earned the right to cash in. For most players, that chance doesn't come around often; a guy's lucky make even one big payday in this league. So when the opportunity arises, you have to act. You want to be part of a team, but it's impossible not to be at least a little selfish. Otherwise, you'll be eaten alive especially when you're going head-to-head with The Sweatshirt.

So, that's what Branch did. And he got his wish. He got paid.

But in the process, he was forced to say goodbye to a special "something," or more specifically and I say this in the least cheesy way possible "someone" who'd had an indelible effect on his life and career.

There were 10 receivers selected ahead Branch in the 2002 draft, and among them are a few names you'll recognize former Patriots Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and Reche "Eye Balls" Caldwell, also Antwan Randle-El, Javon Walker and Antonio Bryant and a few guys you've already forgotten. Anyone seen Ashley Lelie lately? How about Tim Carter? In related news, who the hell is Tim Carter?

But for all the receivers taken before Branch in 2002, none has more career receptions. Throw in his two rings, and no one in that draft Randle-El's the only guy who's even close will leave a greater impact on the game than Branch.

Does that, in large part, have to do with Branch's own skills, determination and work ethic? Of course. But would he have emerged ahead of those other receivers (admittedly, it's not the most intimidating bunch), if he'd spent his first four seasons with a guy like Akili Smith? Or even just Matt Hasselbeck?

No. Branch is a proud guy and for good reason and even he'd admit as much. He was never the same player without Brady. He couldn't reach those same levels without a guy like Brady to give him the boost; to, in Branch's words, make him feel a little bit more than he really is.

But now he has a second chance. It's the return of Brady-to-Branch. And we're all lucky to have it back.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.