FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) – Deion Branch’s picture adorns the cover of this season’s NFL Record and Fact book. It’s a spot normally reserved for the Super Bowl MVP, an award Branch won after 11 catches for 133 yards in New England’s win over Philadelphia last February.

Still, his name hasn’t exactly eclipsed Terrell Owens’ this summer and there’s still a better known “Deion” in the NFL. In part, that’s because Drew Rosenhaus isn’t his agent, he hasn’t threatened to hold out any time soon and his statements (or lack of them) haven’t been the subject of hourly television updates.

In fact, he didn’t even know he was the NFL’s cover boy until he was told about it.

In other words, he’s a typical New England Patriot, more interested in winning than in furthering his own agenda and he’s still a little taken aback when he’s treated as a star. That’s how he felt at the Super Bowl last winter, when he met one of his idols, Cris Carter, who was working as a broadcaster.

“Here’s someone who was in the league for years and who has over 1,000 catches and he’s interviewing me? It almost seemed like he was showing me too much respect,” Branch says. “Then I realized how much that ring means. He did all those things and he never got one. I’ve played three years and I have two.”

Three years under the radar, which is how things work in New England, where even training camp is understated.

Yes, there are a few television cameras around. But most of the media attention is about 250 miles south for the T.O. show in Bethlehem, Pa., and even the locals are concentrating on the Red Sox during the Patriots’ early drills. So Branch is able to stand quietly on the practice field at the north end of Gillette Stadium at the end of a short morning practice.

Yes, he’s only 5-foot-9 and has been troubled by injuries for three years. But an argument can be made that Branch could be on his way to a more productive career than Owens or Randy Moss, the NFL’s two most visible “look at me!” wide receivers. Neither has won a Super Bowl in a combined 18 NFL seasons while Branch has two rings in three years and last season had a total of 249 yards receiving in the AFC title game and Super Bowl after missing seven regular-season games with a knee injury.

After two outstanding seasons at Louisville, he entered the NFL as the 11th wide receiver taken in the 2002 NFL draft and the 65th overall choice -last in the second round. Even in New England, there were skeptics – why take another 5-9 receiver (and that’s generous) when the incumbent starters, Troy Brown and David Patten, were both 5-10.

“I guess they thought I was too short,” he says. “In some ways it was good. It motivated me.”

Bill Belichick knew what he was getting – he usually does, one reason the Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls. In fact, he says Branch came in more polished than most rookies and just kept getting better.

“He’s a very instinctive player,” Belichick says. “He kind of knows the right thing to do without being told. He just knows how to get open. He knows where the other receivers are and he understands where he needs to be.

“And when there are traffic problems, he almost always does the right thing to clear that traffic up – going over guys, going under guys, stopping, throttling down, keeping moving, speeding up, pulling out of routes, sitting down in holes. If you run one play 10 times it could happen differently every time and he would almost always do the right thing.”

That comes from a coach normally sparing in his praise.

No, Deion Branch isn’t Terrell Owens or Randy Moss.

But one team official suggested there might be some ego there.

“You probably shouldn’t have told him about his picture on the cover,” Patriots spokesman Stacey James joked. “Now he’ll probably ask for 10.”

AP-ES-08-05-05 1249EDT


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