You can’t fake the relationship between Tom Brady and Deion Branch.
In an era when teams try to mash quarterbacks and pass catchers together in hopes of generating instant karma, the connection between Brady and Branch is genuine, borne out of several thousand hours' toil and sweat and hard work. While some pass catchers in New England struggle to see the field and learn the offense, Branch knows that there are no shortcuts with Brady. Simply put, you win his trust and confidence, or you’re not part of the passing game.
Those hours together have created a unique bond between the two -- in his professional career, Brady has thrown to better receivers, but since he became the starting quarterback in 2001, no New England pass catcher seems more uniquely qualified at being able to read Brady than Branch. Simply put, the two share a football brain. The quarterback can flash the receiver a simple look and he’ll know exactly what to do and how he wants it done.
That relationship doesn’t always show up on the score sheet. And now, in their 30s, they find themselves relying more on guile and smarts than pure athletic ability. But then again, there are days like Sunday, when the duo can reach back into their shared past together and lift the New England offense when it needs it most. Branch provided the spark in the Patriots’ 38-20 win over the Eagles in Philadelphia (click here for the complete recap). He was targeted 10 times and had six catches for 125 yards, none bigger than his 63-yard reception in the second quarter that helped change the course of the game.
With the Patriots down 10-7 early in the second, New England was facing a third-and-13 at its own 36-yard-line. Brady evaded the rush and stepped up. Meanwhile, Branch was streaking down the sideline.
“Trust me, when he’s scrambling, everybody wants the ball. You can look around and see all the guys doing what they’re supposed to do. Fortunately he was locked in on me on that one play,” Branch said. “We work on those things in practice all the time. It wasn’t like it was it was something new or something. It’s just all about what the front line is doing, and Tom keeping his head up the field.”
Brady kept his head up. He felt the pressure and stepped up. The two locked eyes. The quarterback gestured in his direction and let fly.
“He had a comeback route and he ran it,” recalled Brady. “I scrambled up, and then he kind of stepped up and then wheeled inside and the DB lost him. And I just tried to jam it in there to him. He caught it, and he did the rest.”
Branch hauled in the pass and motored down the sideline. He eventually cut back toward the middle of the field and tried to bull his way into the end zone before getting stopped at the 1.
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis plunged over on the next play from scrimmage to give the Patriots a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. After a first quarter that was dominated in many ways by the Eagles, New England was in command the rest of the way.
Afterward, as with so many of the big plays he’s made over the course of his career, Branch said it couldn’t have happened without the quarterback.
“It wasn’t a play that I made,” Branch said. “It was a play that he made with his feet. Tom doesn’t get a lot of credit for keeping his head up and getting out of the pocket and making plays, and that’s what he did. I think the easy part was the stuff that we do on the outside, staying open with our scramble rules, But all the credit goes to the front line and Tom.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday.
TOM BRADY DOESN’T NEED A SLEEVE
Sunday against the Eagles marked the first time in several weeks when Brady didn’t have the compression sleeve on his arm, and it was clear that the quarterback didn’t have any of the control problems that had plagued him over the course of the previous few weeks. Brady was 24-for-34 for 361 yards and three touchdowns, and he was at his best when he hooked up with Wes Welker on a 41-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter. On the play, Brady made a smooth play-action fake to Danny Woodhead, drawing the safeties forward just enough for Welker to slip behind the defense. When Welker caught the ball, there was no Philadelphia defender within 10 yards of him as he cruised into the end zone.
By the numbers: Tom Brady earned his 119th win as a starting quarterback to tie Johnny Unitas for the sixth-most regular-season wins by starting QB in NFL history.
Money quote: “I think Tom did a good job of really pressing the issue. He felt like we had them on the run a little bit with some of the empty stuff and some of our matchups. We felt good about our running game too, but we just felt like we had some matchups we could take advantage of. Tom just kept pressing it, and he took the guys that were open, I mean, everybody got involved there. That’s what Tom does best -- he finds the open guy, puts the ball on the money. And he did it many times today.” -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick on Brady’s performance Sunday
IT LOOKS LIKE BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS IS OVER WHATEVER TOE INJURY WAS BOTHERING HIM
Green-Ellis wasn’t particularly dominant on Sunday, but he’s run hard enough over the last two weeks to make it appear that whatever toe injury that had dogged him is now a thing of the past. The last two weeks, he’s had 34 carries for 125 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a 3.7 yards per carry average -- 0.3 off that magic 4.0 mark, but at the same time, the quality of yards and ability to move the chains certainly signal that Green-Ellis is as close to 100 percent as he has been since early in the season. On Sunday against the Eagles, it was more of a team effort on the ground -- in addition to the 44 yards from Green-Ellis, Brady had 27 yards, Woodhead had 20 and Shane Vereen had 18. The ground yards did just enough to soften the Eagles defense, leaving them vulnerable in play-action.
By the numbers: Brady finished with 27 rushing yards on six carries. When it comes to yardage, Brady nearly matched his entire rushing output from the 2010 season, when he ended up with 30 yards for the year. (It was his highest single-game output since he had 10 carries for 31 yards on Dec. 24, 2006, against the Titans.)
Money quote: “I thought we ran the ball pretty effectively. That first drive, I thought we did a good job running it. We just kind of sputtered out and we didn’t make some plays in the passing game. But I thought we played with a little power today. We ran the ball to really balance out the passing game.” -- Brady on the running game
THE PATRIOTS HAVE TWO TIGHT ENDS
In the wake of a knee injury he suffered earlier in the season -- and the emergence of Rob Gronkowski as a star over the last few weeks -- it was easy to forget about Aaron Hernandez, or at least dismiss him as “the other tight end” in the New England offense. But the long, lean Hernandez had one of his best games of the season Sunday against the Eagles. With the Patriots using multiple tight end sets for much of the afternoon in hopes of keeping Philly’s nasty pass rushers out of the New England backfield, Hernandez was able to get some separation and some mismatches. In the end, he was targeted seven times and had six catches for 62 yards, his best week since he had eight catches for 68 yards and a touchdown in an October win over the Cowboys. His two best sequences? One was in the second quarter when he caught a pair of passes (a 9-yarder and a 7-yarder) on a five-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a 41-yard pass play from Brady to Welker. His second came on the Patriots’ first drive of the second half when he caught an 18-yarder -- two plays later, Brady found Welker with an 8-yard touchdown pass that gave the Patriots a 31-13 lead.
By the numbers: The Patriots tight ends added to their already remarkable haul on Sunday, as Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass in the second half. Gronkowski has 11 touchdowns in 2011, while Aaron Hernandez has five. The tandem has totaled 16 touchdown receptions through 11 games this season, comprising more than half of Brady’s total of 28 scoring tosses.
Money quote: “I feel that when our offense is on, we are plain tough to defend. So, I’m not totally surprised at all. When the offense is moving so easily, then they mix us in, the tight ends, and it just goes so well. I really love being a tight end in this kind of offense.” -- Hernandez on whether or not he was surprised the Patriots were able to move the ball so easily on the Philadelphia defense
THE PATRIOTS CAN MAKE HAY BETWEEN THE NUMBERS
This was something we talked about all week, but it really showed throughout the game on Sunday. Despite the success that the Philly front four had against New England, it was clear from the start that the linebackers and secondary were overmatched against the New England passing game. Brady was awesome over the middle, going 20-for-23 for 266 yards and a pair of touchdowns on throws inside the numbers. The Patriots were able to get good chunk yardage up the middle both on the ground and in the air much of the day. Passes up the middle to Gronkowski (16 and 14 yards) Welker (14 and 41 yards), Branch (23 yards) and Hernandez (13 yards) all accounted for big yards, while runs up the gut from Woodhead (10) and Brady (6 and 8 yards) also provided support.
By the numbers: Brady’s 361 passing yards were the most he’s accounted for since he tossed for 387 yards in a Week 3 loss to the Bills. In addition, his yards per completion average was 10.62, his highest since his 10.77 in a Week 1 win over the Dolphins.
Money quote: “Our guys were getting open. We’ve got some good quickness in the underneath part of the field, I thought we took advantage of some plays there.” -- Brady on the Patriots' ability to operate underneath on Sunday
THINGS ARE GETTING A LITTLE DICEY FOR THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Along the offensive line, the Patriots were perilously thin at the start of the game, going with third-stringer Ryan Wendell at center and bringing along two backup offensive linemen in Marcus Cannon and Donald Thomas. (Rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder spent much of the afternoon working as an extra tight end in hopes of slowing down the Philadelphia pass rush.) New England’s offensive line was stressed all afternoon, as the Eagles were able to consistently get pressure on Brady -- even though Philadelphia only officially recorded two quarterback hits, the Eagles were in Brady’s face all afternoon. And for the second straight week, a Patriots offensive tackle left the locker room after the game in a protective walking boot. This time, it was Sebastian Vollmer who appeared to turn his right ankle late in the first half. Vollmer’s injury was announced as a right foot/ankle during the game. He was listed as questionable but did not return for the rest of the game, replaced by Solder.
By the numbers: The Patriots started Ryan Wendell at center on Sunday in place of backup center Dan Connolly, who was out with a groin injury. It marked the fourth different starting lineup for New England’s offensive line in 11 games this season.
Money quote: “They’ve got a good pass rush. They’ve got a lot of good players on the front. Give our guys credit for blocking them. Tom got rid of the ball, he stepped up and took advantage of some openings in the pass rush where they looked like they got a little up the field, and he either scrambled or stepped up and was able to deliver the ball. So, it was a good job by both him and the line of creating some space and then Tom finding it and being able to get it off." -- Belichick on the offensive line
THE PATRIOTS ARE CAPABLE OF STARTING QUICKLY
Over the previous six weeks, the Patriots had averaged just nine points over the first two quarters, bottoming out earlier this month against the Giants when they went scoreless in the first half. On Sunday against the Eagles, the New England offense stalled on its first drive but outscored Philadelphia 24-3 the rest of the half. The two big plays came in the second quarter when a 63-yard pass play from Brady to Branch set up one touchdown (that made it 14-10, New England) and a 41-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Welker made it 21-10. The two plays came roughly six minutes apart and set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The Eagles wouldn’t be within eight points the rest of the way.
By the numbers: The 24 points by the Patriots are the most this year in one half. They scored 21 in Week 3 against the Bills and led 21-10, before dropping the game, 34-31, at the final gun. They also scored 20 in the first half against the Chargers in Week 2 and won 35-21.
Money quote: “I think overall we did a great job of just staying composed on the sideline and making sure we made the right adjustments. ... Once we settled down we realized what they were doing, [we realized] now we can go out and attack the way we should, and pretty much [do] what we planned on doing for our game plan.” -- Branch on New England finishing the first half strong
THE EAGLES MIGHT BE THE MOST UNDISCIPLINED TEAM THE PATRIOTS WILL PLAY ALL YEAR
It wasn’t just the dropped passes (some of which came in the red zone and forced the Eagles to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns) or the penalties (10 for 60 yards) or the general sense of mayhem that seemed to envelope them as the game continued. Less than 30 minutes into the game, it was easy to see why the Eagles are a discombobulated mess. The bottom line is that Philadelphia is a great collection of talent but a series of mostly disparate parts that still cannot play together as a unit. The “Fire Andy” chants that rang out around Lincoln Financial Field as things went from bad to worse for the Eagles served as a backdrop for a team that went down fighting ... amongst itself. According to reports, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and defensive line coach Jim Washburn “exchanged words” on the sidelines as time ticked down. Meanwhile, DeSean Jackson, who short-armed a touchdown catch and accounted for at least two drops, was benched in the fourth quarter of the ugly loss. Just a lousy afternoon all around for the “dream team.”
By the numbers: The Eagles have lost eight of their last nine games at home.
Money quote: “The way we played, I can understand.” -- Reid on the “Fire Andy” chants that circulated throughout Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday
AS A GROUP, THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE DID ENOUGH TO WARRANT A PASSING GRADE
While there was some bad for the Patriots defensively (early pass plays of 22, 58 and 44 yards from Vince Young exposed some soft areas of the pass defense), there was also a lot of good. New England was able to hold Young to the softest 400-yard passing performance in league history (after his initial burst on Philadelphia’s two first-quarter scoring drives, he was pretty much limited to garbage-time passing yards once the game was out of reach). The Patriots didn't get much of a sustained rush on Young (they had two sacks and two quarterback hits on the afternoon), but they did shut down the league’s leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, holding him to 31 yards on 10 carries. (McCoy, a big-play threat, had one 22-yard gain, but that was pretty much it for the afternoon.)
By the numbers: The Patriots held the Eagles (the No. 1 rushing team in the league) to 73 yards on the ground on Sunday. It represented a season-best for the New England run defense and the seventh time this season the Pats have held an opponent under 100 yards on the ground.
Money quote: “I think our players were very aware of him. He still got outside there one time and had a big run. But they were very aware. We tried to be very disciplined. We knew he could cut back, bounce out, and [that] he was a very hard guy to tackle. We studied a lot of film on him. We really tried to be disciplined and contain him but also play good technique inside so we wouldn’t give up seams trying to run around guys and all that. I thought they really tried to do that. He’s a hard guy to handle, that guy’s as good a back as we’ve seen all year. He’s really a good player.” -- Belichick on LeSean McCoy
THE SHORT WEEK WASN’T A PROBLEM FOR THE PATRIOTS
It was a weird workweek for New England. The Patriots played on Monday night, had a day off on Tuesday and worked Wednesday, Thursday (the holiday) and Friday. By all accounts, it was a good week of practice for the Patriots, who managed to keep their focus despite the choppy workweek. That commitment showed on Sunday against the Eagles.
By the numbers: This week marks the second of three unorthodox workweeks for the Patriots this season. New England opened the season with a Monday night game in Miami, followed by a Sunday afternoon game at home against the Chargers.
Money quote: “Give the players a lot of credit for sucking it up. Not just physically being out there, but mentally, all the preparation, the film work, the studying that they did, the extra meetings and everything that they did to really try to prepare for this game. Absolutely it was a great effort by the players ... and the assistant coaches, too. It’s a tough week on them when you’ve only got six days; you’ve got a holiday right in the middle of it. Like you said, you’re all the road and all that. But that’s the NFL schedule. Those guys did a good job. They deserve a lot of credit.” -- Belichick on the workweek