Branch hasn’t lost his reach
Receiver remains a Brady favorite
FOXBOROUGH - Peanut butter and jelly, cookies and milk, Tom Brady and Deion Branch - some things just belong together.
At 32 years old and with some believing just a couple of weeks ago that perhaps his best days were behind him, Branch had eight catches for 129 yards in the Patriots’ 35-21 win over the Chargers yesterday, the 10th 100-yard game of his career. In two games this year, Branch his 15 catches for 222 yards.
He was the only receiver Brady looked to in the closing seconds of the first half, after Vince Wilfork’s smile-inducing interception gave the Patriots possession. Two quick passes, two quick sideline catches to stop the clock, and Brady and Branch picked up 18 yards, putting New England within field goal range. Stephen Gostkowski converted from 47 yards for a 20-7 halftime lead.
“I’ve thrown a lot of passes to him over the years,’’ Brady said during his shared postgame press conference with Branch. “There’s nobody I enjoy playing with more than this guy. It’s always been that way. He’s my locker mate and one of my great friends. He’s just everything you look for in a receiver.’’
Branch attributed the duo’s success to . . . proximity?
“Let’s just say that it’s good luck - maybe because we sit beside each other in the locker room,’’ Branch said.
Though it looked like Branch made a seamless return to New England last year after four-plus seasons in Seattle, he has said that he wasn’t as comfortable as he may have appeared - much of the playbook was the same, but there were several new plays as well.
“Coming in last season, I stressed so much about it . . . we get a playbook on Monday and focus on the things Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. There were a lot of things I missed in training camp last year that Tom was doing on the football field that he would tell me on the sidelines, that I didn’t have the opportunity to go over during the game.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in the huddle [now] hearing certain things. And Coach is just throwing guys all over the football field.’’
Tight situations Rob Gronkowksi got off to a slow start, picking up a penalty and blowing a blocking assignment that led to Brady being sacked, but finished strong as he caught four passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns.
Gronkowski also had a 30-yard reception, the longest of his career. Aaron Hernandez added a touchdown as the tight ends accounted for all three of Brady’s touchdowns. The two continue to cause matchup problems for defenses, as Gronkowski scored a touchdown for the fourth consecutive regular-season game dating to last season.
“Whatever the play call is, that’s what you’ve got to do and go out and execute,’’ Gronkowski said. “And then you’ve just got to keep it up, too. We’ve got to go out and practice and keep on proving week in and week out that it’s not just a onetime thing and we can keep going out there and making blocks for running backs and doing our own job.’’
Brown delivers The last time safety Sergio Brown grabbed an interception, he was making plays for Proviso East High School in Maywood, Ill. Yesterday, Brown recorded his first NFL interception when he picked off the Chargers’ Philip Rivers at the New England 7-yard line in the third quarter.
Tight end Antonio Gates was the intended target and Brown sat back long enough to swoop in for the interception.
“Wow, I was ecstatic,’’ Brown said. “That was my first interception since high school. Really - high school. I was so in the moment that I don’t really remember what I did after the interception.’’
Hall honorees The Patriots honored franchise Hall of Famers Drew Bledsoe and Jon Morris at halftime. Morris received a warm ovation from the crowd, but Bledsoe was cheered so long that he had to ask fans to stop so he could start his speech.
Morris called the honor the crowning achievement of his football life. Bledsoe noted that if team owner Robert Kraft is the brains of the franchise, then his late wife Myra, for whom there was a moment of silence before the game, was its heart and soul.
Bledsoe also thanked the fans, saying he arrived in New England as a “21-year-old from Walla Walla, Wash., and you embraced me as one of your own.’’
Asked for his memories of Bledsoe, Bill Belichick mentioned the 2001 AFC Championship game when he came on for an injured Brady. The coach also made sure to talk about Morris, whom he coached in Detroit when the center was near the end of his NFL career and Belichick was just beginning his.
“Nobody is more professional than Jon,’’ Belichick said. “Jon Morris and other people that played with him had just done so much for this game. Now it’s a multibazillion dollar industry, but it’s the Jon Morrises that really were some of the building blocks that made this game as great as it is.’’
The famously rumpled Belichick joked that Bledsoe and Morris, in their custom red Patriots Hall blazers, “made me look bad.’’
End game for Solder Rookie offensive lineman Nate Solder didn’t have to step in for right tackle Sebastian Vollmer this week. Instead, the Patriots introduced Solder a few times as the third tight end.
Solder began his career at Colorado as a blocking tight end. It wasn’t until his second year (after redshirting) that he gained 30 pounds and was converted to a left tackle.
Yesterday, Solder played at least five snaps as the third tight end.
Playing the part The Patriots put on another offensive show for Chad Ochocinco to enjoy, but this time he played a bigger role. Ochocinco had two catches for 45 yards. Brady connected with Ochocinco during the Patriots’ first drive of the game, hauling in the 15-yard pass and received a round of cheers. He came back later to catch a 30-yard pass.
Wounded list Several Patriots incurred injuries during the game.
Safety Patrick Chung left in the second half and went back to the locker room, but returned to the game with a black cast on his right wrist/hand.
Punter Zoltan Mesko’s left (kicking) knee bent awkwardly when teammate James Ihedigbo was blocked into him during a third-quarter punt. Mesko had a black brace placed over his knee after riding a stationary bike for a couple of minutes. He did not punt again (New England went for it on fourth and 4 near midfield shortly after his injury, a move Belichick attributed to Mesko being unavailable), though he was on the field to hold on Gostkowski’s final extra point. Hernandez left with a knee injury and was spotted in the locker room after the game limping. Rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling left with a thigh injury.
Ridley debuts Rookie running back Stevan Ridley made his NFL debut with two carries for nine yards . . . The Patriots inactives were quarterback Ryan Mallett, receiver Taylor Price (hamstring), running back Shane Vereen, linebacker Gary Guyton (hamstring), center Ryan Wendell (calf), center Dan Koppen (fibula), and defensive lineman Mike Wright (concussion). San Diego’s inactives included receiver Patrick Crayton (ankle) and defensive tackle Luis Castillo (tibia) . . . The Patriots have won 17 straight home games, dating to their 47-7 drubbing of Arizona on Dec. 21, 2008, and Brady has won 29 straight regular-season home games, a league record. The Patriots have won every regular-season home opener since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002 . . . New England’s current regular-season streak of 10 games with 30 or more points is the second-longest in NFL history. The St. Louis Rams of the Greatest Show on Turf, set the league record at 14 games from 1999-2000 . . . Wes Welker has recorded at least one reception in 63 consecutive regular-season games, tying Ben Coates for the franchise record . . . Dartmouth native and UConn product Jordan Todman was among the Chargers’ inactives. The rookie running back, a sixth-round draft pick, has not yet played in the regular season.