Alan Branch centerpiece of Patriots' hopes to limit Falcons' running game

Alan Branch has become a top-level run-stopper for the Patriots. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It has been one of the top storylines for the New England Patriots in 2016: A veteran with double-digit years of experience -- most often aligned closest to the center -- has shown that one can age into his 30s and still play a high level of football. Maybe, in fact, the best football of his career.

Tom Brady? Sure.

But this story also applies to defensive tackle Alan Branch. In his 10th NFL season, he is the unquestioned rock in the middle of the Patriots' D.

The Patriots have asked more of the 6-foot-6, 350-pound Branch this season, and coach Bill Belichick has been impressed with how the veteran has responded.

"Alan has done a great job for us," Belichick said. "Along with his play, which is certainly significant, one of the things that has been really impressive about him has been his play time. In addition to his overall production, he's played a lot more than he has in quite a while in terms of number of plays."

Branch, 32, led all Patriots at his position by playing 60.1 percent of the team's snaps in the regular season. That was up from 39.6 percent in 2015.

Finishing with 49 tackles, his primary value has come as a run-stuffer, which could come in handy in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons and their Devonta Freeman-led rushing attack. The Patriots haven't allowed a 90-yard rusher in any of their past 25 games, but Freeman (227 rushes, 1,079 yards, 11 TDs) and Tevin Coleman (118 rushes, 520 yards, 8 TDs) -- running behind an offensive line bolstered by the free-agent signing of center Alex Mack -- pose a formidable one-two punch that ranked fifth during the regular season in both rushing yards per game (120.5) and average yards per rush (4.6).

Meanwhile, in passing situations, Branch's long arms have helped him in a pocket-pushing role (1.5 sacks), where he has also disrupted passing lanes at times (three passes defended). In Sunday's AFC Championship Game, Branch's work against Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey caught the attention of former Patriots assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi.

Belichick noticed too, saying, "Guys that weigh 350 pounds and are athletic and long like he is, they don't grow on trees. They're hard to find."

The Patriots "found" Branch at one of the lowest points of his career, signing him to a one-year contract on Oct. 29, 2014, two months after Branch had been released by the Buffalo Bills after a DUI arrest and was wondering if he'd play again.

Branch averaged 20 snaps per game as a reserve behind Vince Wilfork and Sealver Siliga that year, and then signed a two-year contract with a maximum value of $6.6 million in the offseason. That deal now looks like one of the NFL's better bargains, as Branch is scheduled for unrestricted free agency and is likely to command an even richer deal on the market.

While one would assume the Patriots want Branch back in 2017, the sides haven't aggressively talked about an extension; the plan is to revisit talks closer to free agency. Branch, who is at the point in his career when some start thinking of retirement, said his body feels good and there’s no reason to stop now.

Next stop: Super Bowl LI. Branch's performance this season is a big reason why.