He picked up a couple of scars on his knees during his four years in Seattle, his lucrative but ultimately unfulfilling professional purgatory. His hair is different and his face shows the years a little more. And his old familiar No. 83 belongs to and is more associated with Wes Welker now. He's now No. 84 in your GameDay program.
Otherwise, the Deion Branch we saw Sunday sure looked just like the Deion Branch we all remembered so well, didn't he? His performance -- nine catches, 98 yards, one touchdown and damn near a second -- looked like it could have come out of his highlight reel, the moment matching up perfectly with the memories.
I'm so sentimental about this that I'm about to queue up some John Sebastian here -- Was there something that made you come back again/And what could ever lead ya/Back here where we need ya -- for which I will now apologize but not really mean it. Let's just say the performance by
ol' No. 83 new No. 84 made for a heck of a welcome-back party.
I realize I'm late to this particular party (as usual . . . it's like I'm on a three-day delay on this blog lately, and I hate it), but I doubt anyone minds. The Patriots' 23-20 victory over the Ravens Sunday is one of those wins that linger, one of those wins that leaves a smile on your face for hours after the game as you replay the highlights in your mind, one of those wins that puts a little extra bounce in your step as you roll out of bed the next day and remember how it all went down. While Bill Belichick and his team surely moved on to the Chargers at, oh, roughly 4:30 p.m. Sunday, it's OK for us to savor it.
The performance confirmed a lot of things about this football team -- that they could beat a legitimate top-quality opponent, that the Wilforks and McCourtys and Cunninghams and Chungs and Mayos, yes, even the formerly anonymous Ninkoviches, Deadericks and Fletchers, are accelerating toward becoming a very compelling defense by the time the postseason is here, and that the Back To The Future passing game worked, for the most part, as if Bill O'Brien had stumbled upon an old Charlie Weis play sheet or the Patriots had never deviated from it in the first place.
Yes, it was an incredibly fun victory, one that in a way made up for the lost chance to properly savor the Miami win because of the Randy Moss bombshell, and it was appropriate and rewarding that Branch was such a significant factor. To be honest, I didn't expect him to contribute so much so soon; I thought Brandon Tate and Aaron Hernandez would be featured more, while Branch would slide in as a third receiver and maybe catch three or four balls.
Maybe that's how it will go eventually. But this Sunday, it sort of evolved like this.
First quarter: "Hey, Branch caught a pass. Nice to have him back."
Second quarter: "Man, he's actually a pretty big part of the passing game today. Impressive."
Third quarter: "This is exactly the Deion we remember. How come Seattle never used him right, anyway? Seahawks are a dumb bird!"
Fourth quarter: "He's open in the end zone! He's open! . . . AAAHHH! So close! Could have been the perfect ending!"
Overtime: "Just get him the ball a couple of times, Brady, and then Vinat . . . er, Gostkowski can win it."
So yeah, I probably should have known he would rise to the occasion. That has been his history, after all. One reason Branch remained so widely admired by New England football fans was the little receiver's knack for playing big in the biggest moments.
He was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX with 11 catches for 133 yards -- including a spectacular catch he snagged a split-second after it sailed through the hands of an unbelieving Eagles defensive back. And he was equally spectacular, if not the official MVP, in the Patriots' Super Bowl win over Carolina the previous season, when he had 10 catches for 143 yards, including a 17-yard reception that helped set up Adam Vinatieri's winning kick.
It is Branch's association with those cherished times in franchise lore, as well as his reputation as a smart, precise, hard-working receiver who long ago won the unyielding trust of Brady, that kept alive the daydream that he'd someday play for the Patriots again.
Before Sunday's redemptive return, he final image of Branch in a Patriots uniform was of him standing on the Patriots' sideline, tears streaming down his cheeks, as the bid for three straight titles and four in five years ended in the thin air of Denver at the hands of Champ Bailey and Jake Plummer in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoffs.
There was never any doubt about how much he cared.
And that's why all was easily forgiven long ago regarding his messy departure in a contract dispute in September 2005, which was arguably a more egregious exit than Moss's fly pattern to Minnesota. By the time the Doug Gabriel/Reche Caldwell missed opportunity in 2006 had passed, we weren't mad at him. We just wished he'd never left.
This is no knock on Randy Moss, who was always entertaining, often spectacular, and would have been a Super Bowl hero in his own right had the defense been able to stop Eli Manning.
But Deion Branch is back where he always belonged. And suddenly, all feels right with the Patriots.
It can't be all coincidence, you know.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.