Patriots O Needs to Branch Out

As sports fans, we like to twist ourselves into all sorts of knots staring at statistics and trying to glean meaning from them. But if you’re looking to understand why the Patriots offense looked so horrendous yesterday in their stomach-puncher of a loss to the Giants, there’s one stat line that really stands out:

Deion Branch: 2 receptions, 21 yards.

The former Super Bowl MVP was really nowhere to be found. In truth, he’s been pretty invisible for a while now — it’s just nobody has really noticed because Chad Ochocinco has been even worse. If nothing else, Branch has been a bell-weather for the offense this year. He was great the first two games of the season against Miami and San Diego, reeling in 15 catches for 222 yards. The Pats scored 38 and 35 points, respectively, in those games. He also had a strong performance in Week 5 vs. the Jets, catching 7 for 74 yards and a TD. New England put up 30 points in that one. But other than that, he’s averaging just 2 receptions per game. The last three weeks, when the Patriots have only mustered 20, 17, and 20 points, he’s had 3, 4, and 2 catches.

Tom Brady was pretty clearly forcing the ball into spaces yesterday — particularly when he was targeting Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. (What’s that you say? He threw the ball to Chad Ochocinco five times with most of those balls looking totally forced? I’m sorry, I’ve blacked that out of my mind. Chad who?) We last saw this from Brady two years ago, when he would lock on to Welker and Randy Moss and try to wedge it into them come hell or high-water. Back then, the issue was that he didn’t have any other legitimate options to throw to. That all seemed to change last year, though, when the Patriots brought Branch back in a trade. All of a sudden, Brady was peppering the ball around to an array of receivers, en route to a 14-2 record.

This year, considering how little depth the Pats have at wide receiver after Welker, the offense is starting to look a lot more like it did in 2009 than 2010. That’s not a good thing, and barring the miraculous rejuvenation of Ochocinco, it won’t change unless Branch starts making an impact again.