INDIANAPOLIS -- There are two players in NFL history with at least 10 catches in two Super Bowls.
One is Jerry Rice. Pause for shock, right? Many football experts feel Rice is the greatest player in history (he topped the list of the NFL Network's top 100 of all-time) and he was dominant in four Super Bowls, catching 33 passes. He hauled in 11 for 215 yards in the win over the Bengals (and was named MVP) and had 10 for 149 yards in the blowout of the Chargers.
If you asked 100 half-serious NFL fans to name the two players with 10-plus catches in multiple Super Bowls all 100 would name Rice. That's no-brainer stuff; I think even most SportsCenter hosts could even figure it out.
The other guy?
It's not Michael Irvin or Lynn Swann or Andre Reed or John Stallworth or Cliff Branch or Art Monk.
Last chance. Any guesses? Sorry, Sage Steele, it isn't Blake Griffin. Thanks for playing, though.
"I had no idea about that," Deion Branch said on Wednesday morning at the Patriots hotel on the campus of IUPUI. "I don't look too much at that stuff, records. I don't worry about it."
Yup, you could make a case that Deion Branch is the most profilic receiver in the history of the Super Bowl. He's played in the game twice -- you could argue it would have been three times had he been on the 2006 team in place of Doug Gabriel, Reche Caldwell or Jabar Gaffney -- and has been brilliant both times. Not good, not very good, but the best receiver on the field both times. He caught 10 passes for 143 yards and a TD in the 32-29 victory over the Panthers and 371 days later won MVP honors after matching the Super Bowl record with 11 catches for 133 yards against the Eagles.
(OK, "most prolific" is Rice -- eight TD catches in four games is hard to ignore. I'll take a mulligan on that one, it was a reach. But Branch matches up with anyone else in Super Bowl history.)
Here's the top five in career Super Bowl receptions:
Rice, 33 (four Super Bowls)
Andre Reed, 27 (four Super Bowls)
Branch, 21 (two Super Bowls)
Roger Craig, 20 (three Super Bowls)
Thurman Thomas, 20 (four Super Bowls)
You've got an Immortal, as close to Babe Ruth or Wilt Chamberlain as the NFL has ever seen (Rice), a four-time Hall of Fame finalist (Reed), a four-time All-Pro and member of the 1980s All-Decade Team (Craig), a league MVP and first-ball Hall of Famer (Thomas) and Deion Branch.
Look, Branch has never been one of the 10 best receivers in football. He has zero 1,000-yard seasons. He has the two 10-catch games in two Super Bowls and one 10-catch game in 130 career regular-season games. He's made as many Pro Bowls as Tiquan Underwood. There are no reality shows, no nicknames, no national TV commercials, no controversy, no movie appearances, no embarrassing attempts at a recording career.
Deion Branch isn't going to the Hall of Fame. That's obvious. But what's equally clear is this: He is the most valuable wide receiver in the history of the New England Patriots. Maybe not the best -- take your pick among Stanley Morgan, Gino Cappelletti, Troy Brown, Wes Welker and Randy Moss -- but no receiver has contributed more to championships.
And he's has a chance to add to that resume on Sunday.
"Deion is a big part of what we do," Tom Brady said. "He's just a very clutch player who always seems to show up in big games. For him to come back last season, he told me last week how excited he was to be back in the Super Bowl. It's great for all of us."
Branch's second act in New England has seen him transition from main target to second, third and now fourth banana. It's the cagey veteran time of his career, a sneaky third-down conversion here, the occasional TD there. He served his NFL purgatory and has made a seamless return to Foxboro and whatever it is that the Patriots Way is.
"He's got a tremendous personality for the position, just the perfect demeanor, he understands coverage, just as smooth a route runner as you'll ever see," Bill O'Brien said on Wednesday. "If you ask him to change positions in the middle of game, he adjusts with no problem. Without a doubt, Welker, Deion and Randy Moss are three of the smartest receivers I've ever been around. I can't say enough about Deion and what he means to our football team."
Cris Carter famously ripped Branch a year ago (and if you were sitting in the lobby of the JW Marriott in Indianapolis on Tuesday afternoon you might've heard him do it again), calling him "just a guy" who "disappears too much against regular corners."
Well, he's right. This Deion Branch has stretches -- long ones, actually -- where he's simply not a factor in this offense, at least as a pass catcher (O'Brien, wide receivers coach Chad O'Brien and Julian Edelman all praised Branch's consistency as a blocker on Wednesday, as Belichick did earlier in the week). In back-to-back games against the Bills and Raiders in October he had a total of one catch. He had three catches over the last three games of the regular season, which included a pair of shutouts.
"There are other guys here, I think Tom knows what he's doing," Branch said. "If I'm open, he'll find me. This is a team game, it's about winning. We don't worry about stats in the Super Bowl."
The fact that Branch is "just a guy" is a not-insignificant reason he's been a success in his return. He has no ego -- at least publicly -- and displays total commitment to what the Patriots do. Cris Carter was doing the dirty work for his pal Randy Moss with those comments; that was as transparent as Carter's bitterness at, despite having a terrific career that will lead to Canton, never getting a chance to play in a Super Bowl.
And now Deion Branch is about to play in his third.
"I appreciate every time, the older you get the more you value it," Branch said. "I was so young and it was so exciting the first time, but now it's more business."
I'm not comfortable with the concept of clutch. To me there's just no definitive proof that some players have the ability to raise their games when the stakes are highest. It whiffs of hero worship, the kind of stuff we really want to believe to be true. And the position of wide receiver is so dependent on what the quarterback wants to do.
But even if you take out the two Super Bowls, Branch has a tremendous big-game history with the Patriots. Eight catches, 153 yards in the playoff loss to Denver. Four catches for 116 yards and a TD in the 2004 AFC title game. Seven catches for 86 yards and a TD in a 27-24 win over the Colts in September of 2004. Even as option two, three or four he's caught two TD passes in three playoff games over the last two years.
Deion Branch isn't going to become the first player in NFL history with three 10-catch games in the Super Bowl. It's about as likely he'll catch none as 10 (Wes Welker is the safest bet for double-digits, and if he does it he'll tie Branch and Rice), but would anyone be stunned if he has his best game of the season on Sunday?
If he does, there still will be no national commercials waiting. But maybe we'll have found a nickname.
Would Mr. February work?