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Patriots dropped the ball

Branch dealings not good for team

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Judgment Day is here for Deion Branch and the Patriots, and nothing that happened last night at Giants Stadium altered the reality that without him, New England's deep-passing game is, to be kind, impaired.

Then again, without the Patriots' cooperation so is Branch's savings account, although, frankly, that figures to be a temporary situation.

The sides have been mum for the past week, since the team announced Branch would be given until today at 4 p.m. to work out a trade acceptable to New England at a pay level acceptable to Branch. The latter, several league sources said late last night, has been achieved, as the Patriots will learn today. As for the former, no one knows what that will take but Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli. If their trade demands are absurd (read that a first-round pick or more when Donte' Stallworth was worth only a fourth and a backup player, and Ashley Lelie cost basically a third-round pick and a short-yardage runner), what then happens to Branch?

See you Nov. 19, which would serve no one's purpose unless the aim here is not to improve the team but instead to measure the testosterone level. Perhaps someone in New England actually believes Bam Childress is the answer to a wide receiving corps that's thinner than gruel, but that person would have to be an optimist.

Childress has done well this preseason when his chances have come, but that doesn't make him Branch, and other than Childress, the Patriots' wide receivers are averaging about 6 yards a catch. Beyond the obvious lack of depth, there are a bigger questions to ask, and they are simple ones:

If the Colts lost their Nos. 1 and 2 receivers because of their penuriousness, would Patriot fans be gleeful?

If the Broncos dumped Javon Walker and Rod Smith for money reasons, would Patriot fans be ecstatic?

If the Steelers let both Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El disappear into the night, would Patriot fans not be dancing in the street?

If the Bengals let T.J. Houshmandzadeh go in free agency and then refused to pay Chad Johnson market value to lock him up for another three or four years, wouldn't Patriots fans feel better about the upcoming season?

If the Dolphins somehow found a way to lose the services of both Chris Chambers and Marty Booker, wouldn't all of New England believe winning the AFC East title just got a lot easier?

The answer to those questions seems, logically, to be yes, so why then does it seem that the loss of David Givens and the apparent business decision to let Branch sit out for 10 weeks or be traded away over money not strike people in New England as a bit, shall we say, troubling? Because they have a big tight end who can run? So do the Kansas City Chiefs, and what good has it done them?

While it is true the ``deadline" imposed by the Patriots a week ago is self-imposed and hence could be extended whenever the team wants, the fact they chose to make it public when they normally keep what they had for lunch classified makes it more difficult for them to alter the direction in which this mess is headed.

More than likely, Branch and his suitor will wait until the last minute to confront the Patriots with the reality that he has indeed gotten an offer he is willing to accept to go elsewhere, and that team is ready to make a fair-market offer to obtain a player the Patriots have said by its actions is not worth the money paid Reggie Wayne, Randle El, or Givens. That being the case, how do you ask for a first-round pick for him?

If you do, you look disingenuous, not to mention cheap. Worse, you have a player who now has had confirmed by you that he was indeed worth more than the price you put on him. And he likely comes away feeling like he was treated in the manner his agent said he'd been treated five years ago when this relationship began, which is to say not well.

That is a dilemma of the Patriots' making and it was not eased last night in a meaningless exhibition game. With the lineups that were running around Giants Stadium, one might be able to judge a player's response to certain situations, but if they were searching for a man to replace their No. 1 receiver, they didn't find him there.

Second-round pick Chad Jackson, who was supposed to come in and give the team enough leverage over Branch to avoid this situation in the first place, remained in street clothes, as he has all summer. Free agent acquisition Reche Caldwell also didn't play last night. Those guys, in theory, should have become the new Nos. 1 and 2 receivers in New England if Branch and Givens were lost over money, but Jackson has thus far only proven that he has a hamstring that does not respond well to treatment or rest, while Caldwell has affirmed thus far the Chargers' decision to give up on him after having made him a second-round pick in 2002. If anyone can honestly say he's a No. 1 or even a No. 2 receiver in an NFL offense, they are more optimistic than Mary Poppins.

Which brings us to Benjamin Watson, the big, fast tight end who reminds many people of Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates or even New England's greatest all-time tight end, Ben Coates. Only problem is he hasn't yet done what any of them did, so until he does it's a bit of a stretch to simply assume, as many in New England seem to be doing, that he's good for 70 catches, many touchdowns, and big downfield yardage this season. Perhaps he is, but no team has yet won a Super Bowl by running the ball and throwing to their tight ends.

Perhaps Pioli and Belichick will blink this afternoon and trade Branch or decide to wait him out. Whatever they do, short of paying the guy, it won't be what they usually do. It won't be something done in the best interest of the team or of a player who exemplifies everything their organization holds dear.

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