FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – The New England Patriots should see firsthand what the San Diego Chargers already know: Winning is much tougher without Harrison.

“I know that if there ever was an intimidator in the secondary in the NFL, it was Rodney Harrison,” Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “That may be something they miss.”

Harrison joined the Patriots before the 2003 season after nine years with San Diego, which released him in a salary cap move. The hard-hitting safety helped the Patriots win the next two Super Bowls while the Chargers struggled through a 4-12 season before reaching the playoffs last year.

But Harrison sustained a season-ending injury last Sunday, tearing ligaments in his left knee in a 23-20 win at Pittsburgh. The Patriots (2-1) already have lost two key linebackers – Ted Johnson to retirement and Tedy Bruschi to a season-ending stroke – and have five defensive backs listed as questionable for Sunday’s game.

“It’s noticeable that those guys are not back there,” said Ty Warren, part of an outstanding and healthy defensive line. “It’s an imposing challenge.”

Third-year pro Eugene Wilson, the other starting safety, had some advice for Guss Scott, Harrison’s replacement who spent all of his first year on injured reserve.

“Just play hard,” Wilson said. “And just know what you’re supposed to do and just try to communicate with the other guys.”

Easier said than done against an offense with running back LaDainian Tomlinson, quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Keenan McCardell.

All had big games in their 45-23 win over the New York Giants. Tomlinson ran for three touchdowns and threw for another, McCardell had two scoring catches, Gates added one, and Brees completed 19 of 22 passes for two touchdowns.

“Antonio … really took our offense to a different level because everyone knew that we could run the football,” Tomlinson said, “but the challenge was being able to open things in the passing game.”

The Patriots sustained two other costly injuries in Pittsburgh. Offensive tackle Matt Light hurt his leg and running back Kevin Faulk hurt his foot; both are out this weekend and not expected to return soon.

Harrison’s absence should help Brees, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick devises schemes to cover up his defense’s weaknesses and confuse the quarterback.

In winning their third Super Bowl in four years last season, the Patriots overcame injuries to both starting cornerbacks that forced wide receiver Troy Brown and linebacker Don Davis into the defensive backfield.

“They’ve always found guys to do the job, and I think the scheme kind of lends to that,” Brees said. “It seems like every week they’ve got a different scheme, and they work to their players’ strengths.”

The Patriots also will be home for the first time in three games and are coming off a clutch offensive performance themselves.

Trailing Pittsburgh 13-10 after three quarters, Tom Brady went 12-for-12 in the fourth period. He was 4-for-4 on a drive that began with 1:21 left and ended with Adam Vinatieri’s winning 43-yard field goal with 1 second remaining.

“(Brady) is certainly not a one-man gang there,” Schottenheimer said. “To me, the one thing a quarterback can bring is hope, and certainly he not only brings you hope, but in most cases if you give him an opportunity he will get it done.”

Unlike the Patriots, the Chargers still have 10 of their 11 defensive starters from last season.

“Guys in the secondary can make a lot of plays. They put a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” Brady said. “I wish we were playing them in December or something. Put those San Diego guys out in the cold.”

The switch in locale hasn’t hurt Tim Dwight, who has excelled as a punt returner with the Patriots after four years with the Chargers. Backup quarterback Doug Flutie, back in his home state after four years with San Diego, can provide insight into this Sunday’s opponent.

“He’s been in my ear for a couple of days,” Brady said of Flutie. “Tim Dwight has done a great job with helping us out. It’s really an opponent we haven’t played in quite some time.”

In that last meeting in the fourth game of 2002, the Chargers won 21-14 in San Diego despite two touchdown passes and 353 yards passing by Brady. Tomlinson rushed for 217 yards that day.

He and Brees have improved since then.

And the Patriots don’t have Harrison.

“It’s going to be tough,” Davis said, “but this team has reacted to adversity very well in the past and this will be no different.”

AP-ES-09-29-05 1935EDT


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