FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Injuries finally caught up with the New England Patriots. San Diego’s explosive offense added to the misery.

Even Marty Schottenheimer knew something wasn’t right with the defending Super Bowl champions.

After his Chargers beat New England 41-17 Sunday, the San Diego coach suggested the win may have had as much to do with who wasn’t playing for New England as the superior performances of Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates.

“What they’ve done is remarkable,” he said of the Patriots, who had their 21-game home winning streak ended. “But at what point in time do you keep responding when you have to keep putting in new players? They’ve done it wonderfully over the last four years, but there comes a time where it has to catch up with you, even with a team as great as this one.”

This was New England’s first loss in Foxborough since Dec. 22, 2002, when they were beaten by the New York Jets. That was the only season in the last four that they failed to win the Super Bowl.

The last time the Patriots started a season 2-2 was 2003, though they went on to win the title that year anyway.

San Diego, which has now scored 86 points in two wins after starting with two losses, was nearly unstoppable against a defense with a lot of holes. Brees threw for two touchdowns, Tomlinson ran for two more and Gates had six catches for 108 yards.

Though the game was tied 17-all at the half, Brees took advantage of a secondary that already was without two of its top three cornerbacks and now is missing safety Rodney Harrison, lost for the year with a knee injury.

“I played with Rodney, I know what a leader he is,” Brees said. “It’s not only the physical things he does. It’s the leadership, the mental toughness, what he imparts to his teammates. I know they’ve been able to put in a lot of subs over the years and not miss anything, but a player like Rodney is something special.”

Harrison’s absence – the physical side – was clearly felt on one play in the third quarter when backup running back Michael Turner ran right through his replacement, Guss Scott, on the way to an 18-yard gain.

That drive ended with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Reche Caldwell that gave San Diego (2-2) a 31-17 lead. Brees also had an 11-yard touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell in the second quarter.

Gates, a former basketball player, also leaped over Scott to take in a 38-yard pass from Brees at the New England 1 on the first series of the second half. That set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Tomlinson, who finished with 134 yards on 25 carries and overall

Tomlinson extended his NFL record to 16 consecutive games with a rushing touchdown, and San Diego rushed for 183 yards against a defense that also is without last year’s starting inside linebackers, Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson.

The Patriots, coming off an emotional win in Pittsburgh a week ago, didn’t want to blame the loss on the new players. After all, they’ve won three Super Bowls in four seasons continuing on when key players were injured or departed for other reasons.

“Rodney’s always been a big defender for us, helping us out there but we don’t have Rodney now,” said Eugene Wilson, the other starting safety. “I don’t know what Rodney could have done out there today to change it.”

Coach Bill Belichick seemed to say the same.

“San Diego is the better team,” he said. They did a good job in every area better than we did and I think the score reflected that.”

Asked how much the injuries contributed, Belichick paused for a second or two and replied: “I don’t know.”

The first half included a rare missed field goal by Adam Vinatieri, who was wide right from 37 yards on the Patriots’ first possession.

New England scored its touchdowns on Corey Dillon’s 1-yard run and a 30-yard pass from Brady to Tim Dwight, who was released by San Diego in March.

NOTES: The 41 points scored by San Diego were the most against the Patriots since Nov. 8, 1998, when they allowed 41 in a loss to Atlanta . …Brees is now 2-1 in games against New England quarterback Tom Brady: 1-1 in the NFL with another win when Brees’ Purdue team beat Brady at Michigan. …Tomlinson’s 134 yards marked only the second time in 16 games an opposing back rushed for more than 100 against the Pats. The last two do it was San Francisco’s Kevan Barlow in the meaningless final game of last season. Tomlinson’s yardage was the most against the Patriots since the Colts’ Edgerrin James had 144 in the 2004 season opener.

AP-ES-10-02-05 1844EDT


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