FOXBORO - The Patriots came within inches and a healthy Rob Gronkowski ankle of winning the Super Bowl last February on a Hail Mary pass in Indianapolis.
Laments piled high.
But this year, in the eyes of Deion Branch, the Patriots are even better, despite winning one less game in the regular season.
"We want to make this team, the 2012 Patriots team, a special team," said the veteran wideout. "Each year is going to be something different. Were a lot better than we were last year. We dont have the same players. That team, the 2011 team, was totally different from this year."
The 33-year-old Branch is finishing his 12th season and acknowledged that there are fewer games ahead of him than behind him.
"I think thats the most important thing that you just said, going into my (12th) year and Im still having a lot of fun," said Branch. "I love playing the game. I enjoy being in the locker room, being around my teammates and I think this is what its all about. We spend so much time together as players. This is where we want to be, this is the position we want to be in and hopefully we can better ourselves as the postseason goes on.
Branch is fatalistic about his future in New England and whether he has another season left in him.
"Trust me, however the marbles fall, I just let them fall. There are a lot of things you cant control in life. Trust me, if I was one of the personnel guys, Id be around every week until Im 40, 45 years old, but thats not my decision. If I was one of the personnel guys but I dont make those decisions."
A few other musings from Branch during his time with the media:
Q: (On getting the ball out quickly offensively)
DB: Trust me, we want to make sure we get the ball out of Toms Brady hands and make sure that were doing what were supposed to do and were where were supposed to be at for Tom. We cant worry about what the front line is doing. We have to do our job. I think so far everything has been good. We have been doing it and right now we need to do a little bit more for the guys to make sure were down the field where Tom wants us to be and I think well be OK.
Q: What are the differences between Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph?
DB: I think theyre both about the same. Both of the guys are pretty physical guys, very instinctive players. Theyre great with the ball; they have a lot of great hand-eye coordination. Both of those guys make plays on the ball. I think the safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning both of those guys are very active as well, especially in the run game. I think they have the right guys in place to run the system that theyre running.
Q: Do you still get pumped up for the postseason?
DB: Always. I get pumped up for the regular season games, all of it. Its a blessing just to play this game and now to be in the position that were in.
Q: You have a lot of guys on this team who play big roles who have never been in the postseason before. How do you tell them what its going to be like?
DB: I think the only thing is we both have film on a game from a couple weeks ago. I think thats about it. As far as what the score was, the game that we won four or five weeks ago doesnt matter. This is a one-game season. We play each other at 4:30 Sunday, thats the only game that matters, for both teams, especially for us.
Q: Does it help to look at their most recent game from last week as opposed to looking at the film from your game with them in December?
DB: Its good but the difference is theyre playing Cincinnati. We know for a fact that its going to be a totally different game plan. We dont do the same things that Cincinnati does. It still rolls back to the film that we have of each other. Once the game starts, theres going to be a bunch of different things theyre throwing around on both sides of the ball. Once the game settles down, we should see exactly what theyre doing.
Q: Do you have to wait for them to start the game to see what theyre doing?
DB: No. I think our biggest thing is to make sure we come out and start fast, regardless of what theyre doing. We have a great game plan and I know were going to continue to progress as the week goes on. Today we started with some great plays, went out and executed those plays and were expecting the rest of the week to be the same. We want to make sure we start fast.
Q: Tom Brady needs just one more win to be the all-time winningest quarterback in the postseason. What is his demeanor as he leads the team in the playoffs?
DB: You see it in the classroom, you see it on the practice field. This is the same leader that when I came into the league in 2002, hes still the same way. Hes still motivating guys, pushing guys. Hes a perfectionist and we all strive for it. At the same time, we all know that were going to make some mistakes but lets make sure we do a little bit more, make a lot more plays than our opponents and thats what its all about.
Q: Some people say that you guys lucked out. What do you think about that?
DB: Anybody can say that. Just like we felt like we threw a bunch of games early in the season. We got the number two seed because thats what we deserved. We put ourselves in that position. We went out and didnt take care of business on our own so we had to depend on someone else. I think most of all, theres nothing we can do to control that part. We can just go out and play and the position we were at with the seeding, it is what it is.
Q: What about some people calling the Texans a cupcake game?
DB: No, trust me, youre going to see a different Texans team. That we all know, I promise you that. Theyre a great team. Theyve been a great team all season long. Unfortunately they ran into a couple stumbles but thats football. Trust me, it wont be the same team that we played five weeks ago.
Q: How big of an advantage could it be to have Rob Gronkowski back?
DB: Itll be great. It will be big for us. Im pretty sure the coaches are going to continue to install Gronk through the game plan to make sure he gets his touches and hes around the ball.
Q: How about thinking about how the opportunities are more limited now?
DB: Exactly. This is what its all about now, the opportunity. Just make sure Im there for my team whenever my name is called upon; just doing my job.
Q: Where did you watch the first game when the team played the Texans on Monday night?
DB: Me and my wife watched the game in the basement.
Q: Up here?
DB: Yeah, I was here.
Q: How fired up were you for the game even though you werent playing?
DB: It felt good just to see the guys doing the things that they did do in the game. You always know it and because Im around it, but when youre away from it and youre watching as a fan, I was very pleased and very happy to see that. Its really nothing new because we can do a lot of great things if we go out and execute our plays the way were supposed to; that type of performance.
Q: Do you talk to the TV when youre watching the game?
DB: No, I actually have it on mute. I put the television on mute.