Patriots focused on seizing opportunity


Patriots focused on seizing opportunity

FOXBORO -- The phone call came a little over a year ago. When Deion Branch picked up, Bill Belichick was on the other end.

"We're thinking about bringing you back," Belichick said.

At the time, Branch was playing for the Seattle Seahawks, who had just come off of back-to-back losing seasons. Suddenly, Branch was closing in on a chance to re-join the Patriots -- perennial Super Bowl contenders -- and his thoughts began to race.

"That was the first thing that went through my mind," Branch said, recalling the phone conversation on Friday. "I was able to get back and play for the organization where I started, which is a blessing, and also to be in this position."

A realistic chance at another Super Bowl meant the world to Branch. He had been to two with the Patriots at the end of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, but four and a half years in Seattle without a shot at a ring had taken its toll.

He had made his money -- in 2006, Branch held out and was traded from New England to Seattle where he received a bigger contract than what the Patriots offered -- and by the time Belichick came calling last season, things had changed.

When the Patriots traded Seattle a draft pick in exchange for Branch, it was the veteran receiver's dream come true.

It's taken a year, but now he's back to where he always wanted to be: 60 minutes from a Super Bowl.

"This is what it's all about," Branch said of the upcoming AFC title game between the Patriots and Ravens. "Getting to this point and taking advantage of the opportunity. All 32 teams set out for this game right here, this is what it's about right here."

Branch is in his tenth NFL season. He knows how rarely chances at a Lombardi Trophy come along. So too do veterans Brian Waters, Shaun Ellis, Gerard Warren and Chad Ochocinco, all of whom have played at least 11 years in the NFL without a Super Bowl appearance.

But the younger Patriots realize the stakes of Sunday's game, too.

"What we've all been talking about is just taking advantage of the opportunity," Devin McCourty said. "Going home at night, studying more film. Studying everything. Doing everything we can . . . You don't get these opportunities every year."

The message has reverberated throughout Foxboro in the last few days, and for Matthew Slater, there's no escaping it. When he's not talking to teammates or coaches, he's getting an earful from his family on the importance of Sunday's game.

Slater's dad, Jackie, made it to the Super Bowl just once in his Hall of Fame career.

"I've gotten an e-mail every day from him this week just telling me to really not take this opportunity for granted," Slater said. "He played 20 years and only played in one Super Bowl.

"You realize, this is why we all play the game. Everybody's been brought here for games like this, to win games like this. He keeps telling me, 'You can't let anything come between you and what you have to do on the field on Sunday. Be extremely focused.' Obviously that message has been echoed around here all week. He knows what's at stake. I know what's at stake. We all do."

Patriots cut ties with Cassius Marsh, sign Eric Lee to help front-seven


Patriots cut ties with Cassius Marsh, sign Eric Lee to help front-seven

Cassius Marsh was brought to New England to help a depleted defensive end group and play in the kicking game. The Patriots wanted him badly enough that they parted with two draft picks -- a fifth and a seventh -- to acquire him in a trade with the Seahawks just before the start of the season. 

Less than three months later, they've decided to part ways with the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder. 

Marsh played in nine games for the Patriots this season, providing the team with an edge defender and someone with special-teams experience. He blocked a kick in Week 7 against the Falcons that earned him an enthusiastic attaboy from coach Bill Belichick. 

Coming off the edge, Marsh recorded one sack and 13 hurries. Against the run, he was used more sparingly, and he was one of the Patriots on the scene for Marshawn Lynch's 25-yard run in the second quarter on Sunday. He played in just two snaps in Mexico City after missing the previous week's game in Denver due to a shoulder injury. 

Without Marsh the Patriots remain thin at defensive end. In order to help bolster that spot, the corresponding move the Patriots made to fill the open spot on their 53-man roster was to sign defensive lineman Eric Lee off of the Bills practice squad. 

Lee entered the league with the Texans last season as an undrafted rookie out of South Florida. Listed at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, Lee has bounced on and off of the Bills practice squad this season since being released by the Texans before this season.

The Patriots got a good look at Lee during joint practices last summer with the Texans at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. In the preseason game with the Texans that week, Lee played 40 snaps and according to Pro Football Focus he had two quarterback hurries. The Patriots have a history of snagging players they've practiced against, and with Lee, that trend continues

Bruins still holding out on a goalie decision for Devils game


Bruins still holding out on a goalie decision for Devils game

BRIGHTON -- Coming off a pair of back-to-back wins from backup goaltender Anton Khudobin, the Bruins are still undecided about what they’re going to do between the pipes Wednesday night against the New Jersey Devils.

On the one hand, the Bruins are very tempted to ride the hot goaltending hand with Khudobin a strong 5-0-2 record on the season and a .935 save percentage that currently leads all goaltenders across the league. There’s a school of thought that the B’s should simply keep plugging Khudobin into the lineup until he actually loses a game, and begins to cool down a little bit between the pipes after stopping 63-of-65 shots against LA and San Jose.

At the same time it will be over a week since Tuukka Rask has played in a game if the Bruins go with Khudobin on Wednesday night against the Devils, and Bruce Cassidy was clear to stress that Rask is still their No. 1 guy. So that’s the dilemma the Bruins are facing with Cassidy calling it “a good problem to have” based on Khudobin’s strong play from the backup spot.

That is a far cry from what the Bruins experienced a year ago with the same goalie, and a reason for optimism that their goaltending situation will be better off throughout a long season.

“Do you go with the hot hand and leave your No. 1 sitting where he’s beginning to wonder what the hell is going on? That’s the decision,” said Bruce Cassidy. “We need to keep them both in a good place, and not lose out on [Khudobin’s] good run while keeping Tuukka focused and confident in his game. That’s what we’re battling and I talk to Goalie Bob [Essensa] about it every day. We’ll make our decision [on Wednesday] and we hope it’s the right one.

“It’s a long year so no matter who we use there are a lot of starts. I don’t think Khudobin is going to go ice cold if he use Tuukka tomorrow, and I don’t think Tuukka is going to blow a gasket if we go with the hot hand. For me I don’t think it’s that big of a decision.”

Perhaps Rask blowing a gasket wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world given the way he’s played this season.

The one underlying concern for Rask beyond the .897 save percentage this season is that his game has really been in a different place for the last three seasons. While his .922 career save percentage mark is among the best in the NHL, he has been below that mark in each of the last three seasons while struggling to maintain consistently behind a changing roster that’s turning over to youth and inexperience.

It certainly seems like the Bruins feel it’s premature to label Rask as anything but their No. 1 goaltender, but the pause they’re giving on Wednesday night’s starter speaks volumes about their current confidence level in each of their puck-stoppers.