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Branch's career took a fortunate turn with Pats

HOUSTON -- The sports world has become well aware of Chris Hogan over the last two weeks. But he's not the only Bills castoff who will be starting for the Patriots in the Super Bowl next Sunday at NRG Stadium.

The other guy is Alan Branch. It's hard to miss him. Branch, a veteran defensive tackle, is a 6-6, 350-pound mountain of a man who helps anchor the middle of the NFL's top scoring defense. He's a durable, dependable run-plugger who has played in 47 straight games since joining the Pats midway through the 2014 season.

That's hardly the profile of the man who was cut by the Bills two weeks before the 2014 season. Branch, who had signed a three-year contract with a $3.1 million bonus during a productive 2013 for the Bills, skipped voluntary workouts after the season and reportedly showed up at camp in terrible shape.

Then, in late August, Branch was arrested for drunk driving in Cheektowaga. He was vomiting on the side of his car when police arrived. The Bills quickly cut him. He sat out for half the season before the Pats signed him to a one-year deal.

Branch wound up playing the rest of the season for New England and was on the field for Seattle's fateful interception that sealed the Super Bowl win. Two years later, the New Mexico native is back for another crack at a championship.

"I never really had a problem with drinking," Branch during a Thursday media session at the Pats' hotel. "But a lot of stuff happened to me that year before the season started and I made a dumb mistake. I took all the consequences, but I'm happy that I'm with the Patriots. So I guess there's a silver lining.

"I'm on a team that's a better fit for me and suits me well and winning some games," he said. "I definitely feel lucky. But with luck comes work."

It's difficult to reconcile how a player who didn't care enough to stay in shape with the Bills could become a stalwart under Bill Belichick, a coach renowned for his unsparing standards of discipline and hard work.

Branch hasn't quite been a model NFL citizen. He tested positive for marijuana last summer. The NFL suspended him for four games during the season, believing he had tested positive again. Branch appealed. The league reinstated him before hearing the appeal after learning the test had been in error.

Still, you don't play 47 straight games for Belichick, starting in almost all of them, without a solid work ethic and a commitment to your team.  Something went wrong in Buffalo, but the Pats took a chance on Branch and have not regretted it.

"It's not about what you did before," said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. "It's not how you got there. It's not about any of that. It's about 'Hey, here's Day One, and how are we going to get better and then move forward, trying to get better every day', and he's done that.

"I enjoy all my time with him, I really do," Patricia said. "He's been great, he's been tough, he's been smart, he's tried to do everything we've asked."

Branch is one of six Pats to start every game this season, playing tackle or left defensive end. During the regular season, he had 49 tackles, a sack and a half, two quarterback hurries, three passes defensed and a forced fumble. He had a season-high seven tackles in the playoff win over Houston.

"I'm doing the same thing I did when I started in the league," said Branch, a second-round pick of the Cardinals in 2007 who is in his 10th season. "Sometime, the ball rolls in your direction and sometimes it doesn't. I'm playing a lot. You have to be on the field to get a lot of snaps. I put in work and things have fallen in my favor.

"With the game plan and the system that we have with 'Matty P's defense, it just worked out. I feel like I've been ready to capitalize on opportunities my whole career and I finally had the opportunity in front of me to make a huge difference and have my hand in the mix when it comes to defense."

Branch, 32, a family man with four young children, said he bears no resentment toward the Bills. But he believes he was made out to be a malcontent because of one bad mistake, one he admits could have resulted in someone getting killed.

"I was happy to get out of there," he said with a hearty laugh, "but I wasn't happy to sit on my couch for eight weeks, either. I enjoyed Coach" Doug "Marrone," he said. " A lot of guys on the team were good people. I guess I was ready to go and unknowingly made a decision that helped me get myself up out of there."

What about Doug Whaley, he was asked?

"Who?" Branch replied.

The general manager.

"Who?" he said.

Evidently, he left town with a negative impression of the GM, as Fred Jackson did a week later. Whaley cut him, so it's understandable. Next Sunday, Branch will appear in his eighth playoff game since leaving, so he's over it.

"I don't care about anything that has to do with Buffalo right now," he said. "I've got a game to play on Sunday. You can tell them that I don't really care."

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