Deion Branch's five touchdowns this year tied a career high. (Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Seven seasons ago, when he won the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP award in New England's 24-21 win over Philadelphia, Deion Branch was a 25-year-old in his third NFL season.
This time around, at 32, Branch is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. And he's more than willing to admit it.
"I'm one of the old guys now," Branch said with a chuckle while talking with reporters Monday.
Make no mistake about it: The Patriots are a veteran team, especially at spots like offensive line and quarterback. Branch, as part of that experienced corps, has embraced a mentoring role on a receiving unit that features 30-year-old Wes Welker, 25-year-old Julian Edelman and a pair of incomparable second-year tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
New England made a huge splash this summer when it traded for Chad Ochocinco, but the franchise's trade in October 2010 to bring Branch back from Seattle proved to be a much bigger move.
"I was excited, very honored, blessed to come back to the same team that drafted me," Branch said of the deal that saw the Patriots send a 2011 fourth-round pick to Seattle in exchange for him. "When you’re used to playing with a certain guy -- playing with Tom [Brady] -- and used to the things off the field, the transition was pretty smooth."
Branch won a pair of Super Bowl rings during his first stint with the Patriots from 2002-05. He turned in two terrific performances on the game's biggest stage, too, claiming that Super Bowl MVP award with an 11-catch, 133-yard performance against the Eagles and grabbing 10 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown the year before in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
How much he's involved on Sunday might depend some on how healthy Rob Gronkowski's ankle is -- not to mention who the Giants employ to cover Branch.
But there's something to be said for the comfort level Branch has developed with Brady over the years. Bill Belichick praised Branch's role on this team during his Monday meeting with the press, and just a few weeks back, compared Branch to Kevin Faulk, Randy Moss and Troy Brown.
"I think everyone knows how important Deion is to our to our football team, to our offense and our passing game," Belichick told reporters in Indy. "He does a lot of things. He handles a lot of different responsibilities as far as where he lines up, his position and his assignments.
"He has great confidence in his relationship with Tom (Brady) because of their experience together. I couldn’t imagine anybody on the team not thinking that Deion Branch has a tremendous importance to our football team."
It's no surprise that Branch, in his ... um ... "old" age, has mimicked a lot of what Brown brought to the table. Monday, Branch talked about the guidance Brown and another ex-Patriot, David Patten, gave to him when he broke into the league.
He's tried to pass those lessons on down, including to Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez this season.
"I was talking with David a couple of days ago, and he was one of the guys I looked up to," Branch said. "Him and Troy helped me out when I was a young guy, and now I have the same opportunity to do that for our young guys."
Despite taking a back seat to New England's other passing targets most weekends, Branch still caught 51 passes and scored five touchdowns this season. His presence in the lineup alone provides Brady with a familiar target and gives defenses someone else they must account for each week.
Part of why the Patriots brought Branch back, not to mention why he's excelled since returning, is that he's perfectly content to play the role he's been handed.
"That's cool, I just do my job," Branch said. "I can’t worry about who’s controlling the ABCDs. I’m not here to be the one that needs all the attention."
Branch, though, has stolen the spotlight on this stage before. And given the chance in Super Bowl XLVI, he could do so again.
"I think everything," Branch said, "is based on opportunities."
Spoken like someone who's been down this road before.