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Patriots notebook: Branch sticks out

There was plenty of talk about Corey Dillon heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. When the two teams met during the regular season, Dillon sat out with a leg injury and the Steelers dominated with a 34-20 win.

In the game, the Patriots matched an NFL record for fewest rushing attempts with six, and managed just 5 yards on those attempts. Dillon certainly improved upon those paltry numbers with 73 yards on 24 carries, including a 25-yard touchdown run.

Conventional wisdom suggested things would be different if the Patriots could take on the Steelers with their full complement of players. That wisdom proved to be correct, but it didn't have much to do with Dillon's presence.

**[

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]()Deion Branch** also sat out the Halloween massacre at Heinz Field, one of nine games the wideout sat missed with a knee injury. He was in uniform Sunday evening, and it's a good bet the Steelers wished he wasn't.

Branch was the offensive player of the game for New England, racking up 153 total yards, including four receptions for 116 yards to go along with two rushes for 37 more. He also added a 60-yard touchdown reception and a 23-yard touchdown run on a late end around to provide the final nail in the Steelers coffin.

Personnel moves

Just before the Patriots took off for Pittsburgh last Friday, Head Coach Bill Belichick offered some hope to Patriots fans by suggesting injured defensive lineman Richard Seymour had a chance to suit up against the Steelers.

Belichick indicated Seymour had made some progress on his ailing knee during the week, and although he wouldn't start the game, suggested that perhaps he could help out "on situational plays." That turned out to either be an optimistic viewpoint and plain subterfuge by Belichick because Seymour was among the game day inactives for the Patriots.

Joining Seymour on the inactive list were wide receiver Kevin Kasper, defensive backs Earthwind Moreland and Antwan Harris, running back Cedric Cobbs, tight end Jed Weaver and defensive end Marquise Hill. Jim Miller was the emergency quarterback.

Mr. Bill

Belichick moved into some elite company with the win, improving his all-time postseason record to 9-1. That ties his with Green Bay Packers legend Vince Lombardi for the best playoff record in NFL history. A win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX will give Belichick the best mark all by himself, as well as three titles in four years.

Tom Terrific

[

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]()History will look back fondly on Tom Brady. The Patriots quarterback improved to 8-0 in the postseason, the best start to a postseason career in NFL history. He finished 14-for-21 for 207 yards with two touchdowns, including a 60-yard strike to Branch that was the Patriots longest play from scrimmage this season. Those numbers added up to a 130.5 passer rating, the best mark of his postseason career. In those eight postseason games, Brady has thrown just three interceptions, which is the best interception rate in postseason history.

Bus stopped

With the Patriots holding a 3-0 first-quarter lead, Pittsburgh mounted a drive into Patriots territory and faced a fourth-and-one from the New England 39. Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher opted to go for it and had Jerome Bettis barrel his way into the middle of the Patriots defense. Bettis had nowhere to go and was met by a host of Patriots defenders including linebackers Rosevelt Colvin, Ted Johnson and Mike Vrabel.

Bettis tried to bounce to the outside after being stopped and Colvin knocked the ball loose and Vrabel was able to recover. On the next play, Brady hit Branch for the 60-yard touchdown. After going 368 touches without fumbling, Bettis coughed it up for the second time in eight carries after losing a fumble last week against the Jets in the divisional playoffs.

Second looks

Referee Walt Anderson was busy with replay reviews. He was asked to look at three plays and wound up overturning two of them. The first came after an 18-yard catch by David Givens in which the wideout lost the ball after he was tackled. The officials ruled the play a fumble, which was recovered by Pittsburgh at the Steelers 40.

Anderson correctly ruled that Givens' knee hit the ground before the ball came loose and overturned the call. The Steelers were also flagged for a deadball personal foul on the play, moving the ball to the 25. Dillon then romped 25 yards for a touchdown on the next play.

The second review again involved Givens and this time the call went against the Patriots. Givens appeared to make a 44-yard grab down the Steelers 28, but Anderson took a second look at the sliding attempt and overruled the call once again, saying it was incomplete.

The last replay came on Eugene Wilson's second interception midway through the fourth quarter. Wilson scooped the ball with a forward dive and just picked it off the turf. Anderson stuck with the call on the field and the Patriots eventually put the game away with Branch's 23-yard touchdown run.

Automatic Adam

Heinz Field has a reputation of being tough on kicker butAdam Vinatieri isn't the average kicker. He connected on a 48-yard attempt to open the scoring, which matched the longest made field goal in the four-year history of the stadium. He added a 31-yarder in the fourth quarter, giving him 28 straight successful field goals this season.

Pick party

Steelers rookie Ben Roethlisberger tossed three interceptions, which gave him 10 interceptions in his last 110 attempts. Wilson had two of the interceptions whileRodney Harrison came up with the dagger when he returned his pick 87 yards for a touchdown. … Newcomer Hank Poteat made his presence felt in just his second game as a Patriot. The former Steelers defensive back came up with a pair of clutch third-down stops, the first when he tackled Hines Ward 2 yards short of the first down and the second when he knocked a pass away from Ward on the next series. … The Patriots used backup guard Russ Hochstein as an extra tight end and as a blocking back in the running game. … Givens (five catches, 59 yards) caught Brady's second touchdown pass, a 9-yarder midway through the second quarter. It was the fourth straight postseason game in which he has caught a touchdown pass. … The Patriots won for the 12th straight time when recording a defensive touchdown. They also improved to 5-0 all time in AFC Championship Games. In their last three appearances – all under Belichick – the Patriots forced 14 turnovers. New England had four takeaways against Pittsburgh in 2001, six last year against Indianapolis and four again on Sunday.

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