You don't catch 21 passes in the last two Super Bowls without having a sure pair of hands. So when Deion Branch drops a ball, it's big news.
Branch did just that in last week's playoff win against Jacksonville, letting a deep throw slide right through his grasp inside the Jaguars' 10-yard line on the second-to-last play of the first half. The gaffe cost the Patriots a 54-yard touchdown, forcing them to settle for a narrow 7-3 halftime lead in a game they went on to win, 28-3.
"It was a great play," Branch said of the design, not the execution. "We had been (lobbying) for it on the sidelines, and they gave it to me. The line did a great job blocking. Tom (Brady) put it out there. At one point, when I was going after it, I was thinking about diving, and before I knew it, I got up on the ball so fast. I think it was just bad judgment on my behalf. It wasn't anything, just a plain drop."
On Saturday night, Branch and the Patriots will be in Denver to face the Broncos in an AFC Divisional Playoff game. In a 28-20 loss there in Week 6, the Patriots' comeback attempt was stymied by three big drops in the fourth quarter -- two by Branch and one by fellow wide receiver David Givens.
The miscues symbolized a frustrating day for the Patriots' offense as New England snoozed through the first half and fell behind 28-3 in the third quarter. When the Patriots finally got going they discovered that the hole they had dug for themselves was too deep.
"As an offensive player, you always feel like you leave a lot of things on the field, which we have done this season," said Branch, the reigning Super Bowl MVP. "Last season, I can (remember) a couple of games where we went out and played a solid game. This year we haven't played a perfect game or the type of game we want to play on the offensive side of the ball."
Branch, who set career highs in catches (78) and receiving yards (998) this season, had seven catches for 87 yards in the first meeting with the Broncos. He had only two receptions for 36 yards against the Jaguars last week, although those stats would have been much better had he hung onto that bomb.
"I am not going to get down on myself because I know I am not perfect," Branch said. "At the same time, I have to make that play for my team, and I didn't. All the guys were like, 'Hey, we're going to get you the ball back. That play is dead. You're better than that. Don't worry about it.' That's the type of players we have on our team. Who is to say what would happen on another team? I thank God that I am here with these guys."
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has repeated one statistic this week -- in the second half of the season the Patriots allowed 2.9 yards per rushing attempt. That doesn't count a regular-season finale against Miami when the Patriots rested many starters.
"That's unprecedented," Shanahan said.
The matchup will be strength vs. strength. The Broncos won't give up their running game. They were second in the NFL with 33.9 rushing attempts per game.
"We're going to still stick to what we do," receiver Ashley Lelie said. "We don't worry too much about what they're doing. We got our plan and our system and we'll stick with it."
The Broncos will try to exploit whatever they can on New England's defense, but they know that it will be difficult to find any.
"If you do pick up a weakness, it's not there very long," Shanahan said. "You have to adjust throughout the whole game, and they are fundamentally sound. They play good solid football."