The verdict is in and it's unanimous. The Patriots are a better team and a better offense with Branch than with Moss. It is a prime example of why football is different from the other major sports. Players make systems and systems make players, and playing football in Seattle is not the same as playing it in New England or Minnesota or Tennessee.
Chalk another one up for Bill Belichick. Even if he was somewhat duplicitous in his covering up for the mercurial Moss while he was here, Belichick knew when it was time to hit the eject button on the recalcitrant receiver. He did, and then he hit rewind to bring back Branch and the Patriots' Glory Days.
While it still strains credulity how quickly fans and media moved to strike from the record all of Moss's production and big play ability during his three-plus seasons in Fort Foxborough, football is a results-oriented business and the product this season is simply better with Branch.
Count me among the converted. I've seen the light, and it was shining bright on the scoreboard at Gillette Stadium last night, where Branch and the Patriots' issued a butt-kicking rebuttal to the New York Jets and took control of the AFC East.
It was a 42-point beatdown so epic that former Patriot Damien Woody told the New York media: "This is probably the easiest storyline you guys will ever write. We got our [butts] kicked tonight."
The Jets are the only opponent that faced both the Moss-pacifying Patriots and the Branch 2.0 version. They allowed 14 points and 291 yards offense to the former and surrendered 45 points and 405 yards of offense last night to the latter. Branch did all his damage in the first half, setting the tone. He had three catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, a 25-yard effort that came when he ran a slant route on a Jets' blitz and hosed Antonio Cromartie.
You remember Cromartie. He's the same guy who held Moss catchless in the second half of the first meeting between the Patriots and the Jets.
But perhaps the most startling effect Branch's presence has on the Border War is that he renders Darrelle Revis irrelevant. Without Moss to sic on Revis, it almost seemed like Jets coach Rex Ryan didn't know what to do with his blue-chip cornerback. Revis spent some time on Wes Welker, but he wasn't locked on to any one Patriots' receiver. He seemed to be just wandering around the Jets secondary like a tourist in Faneuil Hall.
He should have been on Branch.
After the game, Revis spoke like a guy who had just been stood up on a date, someone who had waited and waited for the other party to arrive at his table, all the while picking at the bread, sipping the water and checking his phone. He lamented the fact that there were no balls thrown in his direction, and pretty much tried to backpedal away from this disaster.
"I did my job. I executed what the coaches wanted me to do," said Revis. "I didn't get no balls thrown to me tonight. You saw the game. It has nothing to do with me. I'm one piece of the puzzle to this team, and if the coach tells me to go play center I'm a go play center. I mean that's just what it is. I tried to execute my job the best way I can."
Translation: Don't blame me.
Revis was asked about the Patriots with Branch instead of Moss, and his answer told you the difficulty the Patriots now pose to the Jets.
"He's not really a vertical guy to me," said Revis. "They tried to pass him the ball deep today. I think that's just Belichick and the coaching staff just getting those guys more involved in the offense and trying to spread it out more."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is no dummy. He's not going to challenge Revis, and now with Moss gone he doesn't have to.
Brady still has plenty of other weapons -- Branch, Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead -- and playing this egalitarian style of offense makes TB12 the ultimate weapon.
He doesn't have to placate Moss or try to pump him up in his futile feud with Revis. The reality is that in trying to coddle Moss and help him win his personal grudge match with Darrelle Revis -- remember last year's game in Foxborough when the Patriots threw a pity pass deep to Moss late in the game? -- they were concentrating on winning the gamesmanship and not the game.
No such problem with Branch, of whom coach Bill Belichick said after the Thanksgiving Day win over the Lions, "He's the best. You can't get better than that. He's totally about the team."
Branch has been rejuvenated by being reunited with Brady and Belichick. In eight games with the Patriots, he has 36 receptions for 497 yards and four touchdowns. That's more receiving yards and touchdowns than he had in 14 games last season in Seattle.
It's pretty obvious the issue with the Seahawks for Branch wasn't his health or the loss of explosiveness. It was being underutilized in an offense that didn't suit his skills.
"I'm having a lot of fun, winning does a lot for you," said Branch. "It's totally different. The guys I played with over there were great players. We just couldn't put it together for some reason. You feel great when you're involved with something special, and I think we got it."
They do now that they have Branch back.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.