FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – In the last game Deion Branch played, he was chosen Super Bowl MVP.

His next game would be the regular-season opener if he misses the Patriots final exhibition game tonight against the Giants. The odd thing is, he’s healthy.

But skipping all four games that don’t count in the standings is the best way for New England’s wide receiver, who missed seven games with a knee injury last year, to stay healthy.

“This may be the best I’ve ever felt, condition-wise, health, everything. I feel really good,” Branch said.

“If I don’t play, I can’t. I’ve just got to worry about what I can control as far as me going out practicing and giving all my time and learning what I’m supposed to learn before the week of the game.”

He said reporters would have to ask coach Bill Belichick if he would play against the Giants. But Belichick wouldn’t say if Branch would see game action before the opener against Oakland on Sept. 8.

“We’ll make those decisions as we get a little bit closer to game time,” he said. “but I’ve told all of the players to be ready to play.”

Belichick hasn’t revealed his reasons for holding Branch out of the first three games, but Branch, whose 11 catches tied a Super Bowl record, remains the Patriots top receiver. The coach also has several receivers vying for one or two roster spots that he needs to get a long look at.

Besides, a main goal of the exhibition season is to keep key players healthy.

New York (2-1) couldn’t do that with quarterback Eli Manning. He sprained his right elbow in the second game and will sit out his second straight game Thursday night. He’s expected to return to full practice Monday and play in the regular-season opener Sept. 11 at home against Arizona.

“That’s what I’m shooting for,” Manning said. “My mind-set is that when we start game-planning for Arizona in the first game, I’m going to be there taking all the snaps and not having to worry about any arm issues.”

Tim Hasselbeck is expected to start Thursday night with Jared Lorenzen, the fourth-string quarterback behind Jesse Palmer, backing him up.

“By far, it’s the most important game I’ve ever played in college, high school anything,” said Lorenzen, who set several school records in four years at Kentucky. “I want to show them I can make a play and put a couple of touchdowns on the board.”

That would be an big improvement over the Giants last game, a 15-14 win over the New York Jets in which Jay Feely’s five field goals provided all the Giants’ points. Both Jets touchdowns came on fumble recoveries in the end zone.

“We played against a very good defense last week, and we get to do it again this week,” Hasselbeck said.

He probably wouldn’t have been pursued by the Giants if Doug Flutie had accepted their offer to be Manning’s veteran backup. Flutie would have been reunited with Giants coach Tom Coughlin, his quarterbacks coach for three years at Boston College.

“That actually would have been a great situation for me,” but going to the Patriots was best for his family, Flutie said.

He threw seven passes when the Patriots (2-1) beat Green Bay 27-3 last Friday. Tom Brady started and saw most of the action but, like most starters in the final exhibition game, is likely to spend much of it on the sidelines.

“I’m excited about what this defense can do,” Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said after last week’s strong performance.

Coughlin wants to see an improved offense and better punt returning. Mark Jones, who handled that job last season, has an injury to the arch of his foot but could see his first exhibition action Thursday night. Linebacker Barrett Green also could get in a game for the first time this preseason after undergoing knee surgery last January.

Whether Branch plays is unknown.

“I’m pretty sure (playing) a game would probably help,” he said. “I want to play.”

He is listed at 5-foot-9 and 193 pounds and has heard people say he’s fragile.

“Everybody knows we play a physical sport,” he said. “For somebody to sit there and say I’m fragile, I think they need to get out there and play a couple of downs.”

Which is exactly what Branch wants to do Thursday night.

AP-ES-08-31-05 1613EDT

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