It would be giving the Patriots too much credit to say that they predicted a rash of injuries on offense. But the decision to hold receiver Deion Branch out of all four preseason games as a precaution is looking pretty smart right now.
The last time the Patriots were preparing for a road trip to Kansas City - just about a year ago - they were wondering what, if anything, they might get out of Branch. After all, he had missed the previous seven games with a freak knee injury suffered in Week 3 when guard Stephen Neal crashed into him while trying to stop an interception return.
Branch returned with a big splash, catching six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in a 27-19 win at Arrowhead Stadium on "Monday Night Football."
Now, with the Patriots (6-4) set to visit the Chiefs (6-4) again on Sunday, Branch is much more of a known commodity.
Healthy, effective and consistent, he stands out like a non-sore thumb on a beat-up offense that ended last week's game without four starting offensive linemen, its top two running backs, its Nos. 2 and 3 receivers and one of its two starting tight ends.
"When we're in the offensive meeting room, we just look at each other and realize, hey, this is all we've got," said Branch, who leads the team in catches (55), yards (707) and touchdown receptions (four). "When we went into the meeting room right before the game, we're used to sitting there with 30 guys. It's like 18 guys in the room (before last week's game against New Orleans). Guys were looking around like, hey, this is it. This is what we're going to take to the field, and this is what we're going to win this game with."
The Patriots won 24-17, though they nearly blew a 24-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Branch didn't have one of his best games (five catches for only 38 yards) but his first four receptions went for first downs, including a 2-yard touchdown to open the scoring.
On Branch's final catch - a 9-yard gain on first-and-10 in the fourth quarter - the Patriots got a fresh set of downs anyway when Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie committed a personal foul by spinning Branch to the turf out of bounds. That was payback for a first-quarter play on which Branch absorbed a wicked hit from McKenzie and bounced up, signaling for the first down.
"He put everything in that lick, and he was surprised I jumped up," Branch said. "He kind of told me when he threw me out of bounds."
That kind of feistiness comes in handy for a Patriots offense that might have outpaced its at-times crippled defense in terms of manpower lost. Except for the secondary, the Patriots defense is now about as complete as it could be. Not so for the offense, which lately has relied on in-season signings such as fullback Heath Evans (the team's leading rusher the last two games) and wide receiver Andre' Davis, who caught a 60-yard TD pass against the Saints.
"We have had a number of guys (out) the last four weeks," said quarterback Tom Brady, who beat the Saints with a makeshift offensive line and without running backs Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk, receivers David Givens and Troy Brown, and tight end Dan Graham. "We are just trying to hang on until we get some reinforcements."
In the meantime, Branch has been a comforting presence. The reigning Super Bowl MVP is tied for 11th in the league in catches and is 14th in yards. He has only one 100-yard game (eight catches for 107 yards against Atlanta in Week 5) but he is on pace to blow away his previous career highs in receptions (57) and yards (803). He also is on target to become the team's first 1,000-yard receiver since Brown in 2001.
All this, and he's only 5-foot-9.
"I don't think about size because I feel I can do the same thing those (bigger) guys do if given the opportunity," Branch said. "If I don't get the opportunity, it might not look like I'm not doing anything. But if they give me the opportunity, I guarantee I can do exactly what every top guy in the league is doing."
about it on the
Patriots Message Board
Talk about it on the Kansas City Chiefs Board