FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sits back in the pocket and surveys the field, looking for an open receiver, there's almost an embarrassment of riches at his disposal.
Welker led the NFL in receptions this season, with a whopping 122 receptions, good for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. It was his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season, and the third year in a row he hauled in at least 100 passes.
Gronkowski, meanwhile, established NFL records for tight ends with his 18 touchdowns and 1,327 receiving yards, which came on 90 catches. Throw in the contributions of fellow tight end Hernandez (79 catches, 910 yards, seven TDs), and you get an idea of the effectiveness of those three great targets for Brady.
And, oh yeah, then there is that other New England receiver, ol' reliable what's-his-name, who also has been known to snag a football from time to time.
A guy by the name of Deion Branch.
A guy who just happens to have been the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6, 2005, when he grabbed 11 passes for 133 yards in the Patriots' 24-21 championship win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
On this potent offense, Branch is only fourth when it comes to production by a receiver. He caught 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season.
But when a defense pays extra attention to Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez, Branch still has, at the old NFL age of 32, the moves and the hands to make an impact.
In the 45-10 romp over Denver last Saturday in the Pats' first playoff game, Branch escaped virtually unnoticed down the left sideline and hauled in a 61-yard TD pass from Brady that put New England on top, 28-7, in the second quarter.
It wouldn't be a surprise if Branch is the X-factor in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, again flying under the radar should the Ravens place extra emphasis on stopping the big three. Not that Branch feels he is being slighted in New England's offense.
"We all complement each other in this offense," said Branch on Friday. "Everybody has a job, a role. Guys here are very unselfish. You won't hear guys saying, 'Throw me the ball, throw me the ball.' That's not how we operate our offense. It's [offensive coordinator] Coach [Bill] O'Brien's job to get everybody the football, and he does a good job of it."
Branch hasn't been concerned with what type of attention opposing defenses pay to anyone on the Pats' offense.
"I just try to go out and do my job to execute the plays that are called," said Branch, a 5-foot-9, 195-pounder. "How [the defenses] play it is their business."
He is aware, though, that the tight ends, especially, can expect to draw special attention from Baltimore's aggressive defense.
"I'm glad [Gronkowski and Hernandez] are with us. That's a good thing. Those guys do a great job isolating certain guys, pretty much causing the defense to focus on them. [The Ravens] have to pick and choose. I think with our offense, the things that we do, we do a lot of different things. The defense has to figure out what is their game plan, what are they planning on going in and focusing on."
Clearly, Branch fits the profile of a Patriots player, putting the team success above individual success, especially in his second go-round in New England.
He was drafted by the Pats in the second round in 2002. After four solid seasons, Branch wanted a contract extension, but New England wasn't offering what he wanted, so he held out, ultimately causing a trade that sent him to Seattle early in the 2006 season for a first-round pick in 2007.
But he didn't burn his bridges in New England, apparently, because last year when the Pats decided to trade Randy Moss to Minnesota, they turned to the Seahawks and reached back out for Branch, acquiring him for a second-round pick in 2011.
Branch and Brady quickly re-established their chemistry. Branch caught 48 catches in nine games last season, good for 706 yards and five TDs. This year, Branch again has been a valuable option for Brady.
Recently Branch talked about being on the same page with Brady.
"I think that the stuff that we do in the meetings is a big part of it," said Branch. "Then once we get on the practice field, I think that's when the reps come in as far as working with Tom on different looks, different things that we talked about in the meeting room.
"Once the game happens, everything pretty much flows just like we've been doing in practice. Just going over certain situations with him. It's great. Tom always puts guys in certain positions to make the plays," he said.
Coach Bill Belichick speaks glowingly about Branch.
"Deion is a very instinctive receiver," said Belichick. "He was in college at Louisville and then from day one when he got here. He's smart, he learns very quickly and he just understands the receiver concepts and techniques.
"He almost always does what the quarterback would expect him to do. He just has a good instinct and a good feel for what the right decision to make is based on what he's seeing, and then, so that he can help the quarterback, [gets to] the spot where the quarterback wants him to be and when he wants him to be there. Deion has a great sense for that timing," said Belichick.
So if the Ravens should concentrate on containing Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez on Sunday, there's always the battle-tested, reliable Deion Branch to lend a veteran pair of hands to the Patriots' cause.
Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.