It looked bad for the Patriots.

In the second quarter of Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh, Matt Light, New England’s left tackle, was taken from the field with a severe leg injury. On the next play, Larry Foote blitzed right over Light’s replacement, rookie Nick Kaczur, and Tom Brady was forced to throw the ball away.

But instead of unraveling, New England rallied.

That’s typical of the Patriots, who again plugged in a rookie for a veteran and finished one of their more dramatic victories over a five-season span in which they’ve had plenty.

After that first play, Kaczur, lined up next to another rookie, guard Logan Mankins, stood up well against a difficult defense. With their protection, Brady went 12-for-12 for 168 yards in the fourth quarter as New England went on to win 23-20.

“We have 45 men suited up. They’re all supposed to be ready to play,” coach Bill Belichick remarked simply after the win, which the Patriots accomplished without Light and safety Rodney Harrison, who severely injured his knee early in the game.

That’s why the Patriots are going for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl and are 36-5 over the past two-plus seasons. Brady is 20-2 in games decided by three points or less since taking over as the starting quarterback in 2001.

Philadelphia, the NFC’s best team over the past five seasons, is almost as resilient, as it demonstrated by beating the Raiders on Sunday 23-20 on a 23-yard field goal by David Akers, who was kicking with a torn hamstring.

That capped a day in which Donovan McNabb – playing with pain in his chest, lower abdomen and shin – threw a career-high 52 passes for 365 yards to overshadow the “matchup” between Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, who, of course, were never on the field at the same time.

On Monday, coach Andy Reid said Akers will probably miss next week’s game in Kansas City and said McNabb’s status is uncertain.

This was one of those NFL weekends with a plethora of injuries, the kind that the Patriots have overcome so well but others don’t.

The New York Jets lost both their experienced quarterbacks to shoulder injuries: Chad Pennington reinjured the throwing shoulder that was operated on in the offseason, and Jay Fiedler, who replaced him, went out soon afterward.

Pennington returned, but was clearly hurting and coach Herman Edwards said Monday that third-stringer Brooks Bollinger is likely to start Sunday at Baltimore.

Buffalo lost Pro Bowl linebacker Takeo Spikes for the season with a torn right Achilles’ tendon, adding to the woes of an already banged-up defense.

Arizona lost Kurt Warner, who injured his right groin in Seattle. The Cardinals couldn’t move without him and lost 37-12, falling to 0-3 and further making a joke of predictions that Warner, who hasn’t really been a franchise quarterback in four years, could revive a dismal franchise.

The contrast between the Cardinals on the one hand and the Patriots and Eagles on the other couldn’t be more stark.

In all three of New England’s Super Bowl seasons, it’s lost key players to injuries, starting in 2001, when Drew Bledsoe injured his chest in the second game and gave way to Brady, an untested sixth-round draft pick.

Bledsoe came back briefly, helping the Patriots win the AFC title game in Pittsburgh, but it was Brady who engineered the drive in the last minutes that beat St. Louis in the Super Bowl. In fact, there has been only one real constant: Adam Vinatieri, whose last-second field goals beat the Rams for the 2001 title, won the 2004 Super Bowl against Carolina, and beat Pittsburgh on Sunday.

The secret, of course, is having a Brady, a Kaczur or a Guss Scott, the safety who replaced Harrison on Sunday and will likely start in his place. Kaczur, a Canadian who played at Toledo, was a third-round draft pick in April and Scott was a third-rounder a year ago, but spent the season on injured reserve with a knee injury.

Both seem able to step right in because New England’s unique drafting system doesn’t rank players on overall ability, it ranks them on ability to fit Belichick’s system.

So Kaczur, Scott and even Randall Gay, an undrafted free agent who stepped in at cornerback when Ty Law was hurt last season, are able to play as rookies. So have several others, notably center Dan Koppen, a fifth-round choice in 2003 who has started since he showed up and now anchors the offensive line.

In fact, Gay and Tyrone Poole, two of the top three cornerbacks, were out Sunday and the Patriots still ended Pittsburgh’s 16-game regular-season winning streak two games short of New England’s record. The Steelers have now lost just twice in the last calendar year – the other also to the Patriots in last season’s AFC title game.

The Eagles are just as resilient as New England in many respects and employ a similar drafting system. The big difference: McNabb was the second overall pick in the 1999 draft, not a sixth-rounder like Brady.

A no-brainer? Well, a lot of folks in Philly hated the choice, thinking (hah!) the team should have chosen Ricky Williams. Remember, also, that was the year five quarterbacks were taken in the top 12 picks of the draft and only McNabb and Daunte Culpepper are still in the NFL.

McNabb also sets the emotional tone for a team that has survived injuries over the years.

“It would be great to not have any injuries and just go out and play football and have fun,” he said Monday, talking about his various aches and pains. “But in life, there are adversities. It all depends on how you’ll be able to overcome the adversities and move on.”

It works for the Eagles and Patriots, rarely for others.


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