By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — It's just the sort of move expected of Bill Belichick.
Sign a longtime member of the opponent's roster just days before a big game and pick his brain for intel.
With an AFC divisional playoff game looming against New England on Saturday, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano knew the questions would come. But he said Monday's addition of former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch is about far more than subterfuge.
"Every decision we make is based on what's best for this team and what gives us the best chance to win," Pagano said during a previously scheduled conference call just moments after the signing was announced. "We just think we got one heck of a football player."
The numbers support that view.
Branch caught 328 passes for 4,297 yards and 24 touchdowns over seven seasons in New England. He was named MVP of the Patriots' Super Bowl XXXVIII victory against Carolina, catching 10 passes for 143 yards and one touchdown in just his third career playoff game.
Branch has 518 catches for 6,644 yards and 39 touchdowns in 12 seasons overall, including five with Seattle. In his only career game against the Patriots, he caught four passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-21 home loss for the Seahawks on Dec. 7, 2008.
It's unclear how big a role Branch might play in Saturday's gameplan. He was signed in part because wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey left last week's win against Kansas City with a hamstring injury.
But Heyward-Bey lost his starting job to Da'Rick Rogers and hasn't had a reception since a Dec. 8 game in Cincinnati. And the Colts also promoted wide receiver Josh Lenz from the practice squad Monday, perhaps with an eye toward filling Heyward-Bey's increased role on special teams.
Pagano was coy about the team's plans for Branch, but he expressed confidence in the 34-year-old's ability.
"If you look just as far as bringing in a veteran guy that has played at a level that he has played at for such a long period of time, I don't see it how it can hurt you," the head coach said. "Again, we'll see how fast he picks up the terminology in the offense. We all know he's more than capable of making plays."
Indianapolis can use all the playmakers it can find against Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. New England is known for its ability to take away a team's primary offensive weapon and can be expected to key on T.Y. Hilton on Saturday.
The second-year wide receiver set franchise playoff records with 13 catches and 244 yards in last week's epic 45-44 victory against Kansas City. It was Hilton's sixth game with at least 100 receiving yards this year and came on the heels of an 11-catch, 155-yard performance against Jacksonville in the regular season finale.
Hilton had six catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie in last year's 59-24 road loss to the Patriots. So there's no chance he'll sneak up on Belichick and Patricia.
"I don't know if that's going to be the case, but if I were them I'd do everything in my power to stop T.Y.," Colts tight end Coby Fleener said. "I think it's a credit to T.Y. and the guys around me. They make my job so much easier. When you have a guy like T.Y. out there who just put up ridiculous numbers in our last game to help us win, 200-plus yards, you have to pay attention to guys like that.
"Ultimately, they kind of forget about guys like me, and it works out well for me."
Indianapolis offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has done a good job recently of moving Hilton around in formations and forcing defenses to find him.
While it remains to be seen how big a role Branch might play in his Colts' debut, there's no question about Hilton's importance.
"I think that we need to get T.Y. open as much as possible," Fleener said. "He's a deep threat. He's quick enough underneath that he can get open underneath. To me, he's a very good wide receiver, and we need to do everything we can to get him the ball."