FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – The New England Patriots have played without running back Laurence Moroney, without linebacker Junior Seau and without defensive backs Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and Randall Gay.

And the list keeps getting longer.

Nose tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Benjamin Watson, a pair of first-round picks from the 2004 draft who have become indispensable parts on either side of the ball, both left Sunday’s 21-0 loss to Miami in the third quarter with leg injuries.

“He’s the centerpiece of the defense,” Ty Warren said of sharing the defensive line with Wilfork. “He’s very important to us. Vince is the big fella that holds it down in the middle.

“Vince is Vince, and there’s no other Vince in here. No one as strong, no one as explosive. There’s only one Vince.”

The Patriots won three Super Bowls by overcoming injuries, starting with the substitution of Tom Brady for Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and running through the two-way play of wide receiver Troy Brown when holes in the defensive backfield stretched the roster to its limits.

But this year, New England may be finding that replacements are hard to come by.

Already with subs in the secondary and at linebacker, the defensive line took a big hit when Wilfork, a 2004 first-round pick from Miami, went down against the Dolphins. Coach Bill Belichick did not comment on injuries in his weekly news conference on Monday.

“It’s the same as it always is,” Belichick said. “It’s Monday after the game. We’ll see where we are on Wednesday.

“My crystal ball’s a little cloudy today. I’ll see if I can clear it up.”

But Wilfork’s teammates said his absence affected the whole defense.

“He does a lot,” defensive back Artrell Hawkins said. “They can’t just push him around. When he went down, we knew he was gone, but the guys who came in played pretty well, also.”

Mike Wright filled in for Wilfork, and David Thomas came in for Watson, who leads the team with 49 catches and 643 yards and is tied for the team lead with three touchdown catches. But the Patriots snapped their three-game winning streak and handed out their first shutout since the Bills blanked them 31-0 to start the 2003 season.

The Patriots have lost three of their last six games; they also struggled in two of the victories, against hapless Detroit and against NFC North leader Chicago. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs preferred to focus on the wins – “the left-hand column” – and not about the quality of play.

“We’re talking about one loss. You’re trying to string them together,” he said, brushing off concerns about injuries. “If we allow them to become a distraction; if we allow them to handicap us; if we allow them to be an excuse, then that’s that they will be.”

Defensive end Richard Seymour said the players were not worried about an apparent trend.

“I don’t think it’s anything where guys are down in the dumps,” he said.

AP-ES-12-11-06 1800EST


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