FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Brandon McGowan helped shut down two of the NFL’s top tight ends for the New England Patriots. On Sunday night, he’ll try to stop another.

Controlling Dallas Clark, the AFC’s leading receiver, seems to be a major challenge for a player who made the league as a rookie free agent in 2005 out of Maine and missed all but two games last season with an ankle injury.

Yet McGowan has played quite well against top tight ends in his first year with New England.

He arrived as a free agent after four seasons with the Chicago Bears and took the starting job at free safety from James Sanders, who held it the past two years but started only the opener this year. In the Patriots’ third game, tight end Tony Gonzalez caught just one pass for 16 yards in New England’s 26-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. In their seventh game, McGowan was solid again as Kellen Winslow had two receptions for nine yards in a 35-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“He’s done a lot of good things and he did them for the Bears,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “He runs well, tackles well. He’s physical. He’s a very instinctive player, knows where the ball is – the reasons why we were interested in the offseason and signed him.

“He’s been a versatile and productive guy for us.”

McGowan played eight games as a rookie but only one the next year when he had an Achilles’ tendon injury. He was healthy in 2007 and started nine of his 14 games. He started the opener last season — a win against the Colts — then hurt his ankle in the second game and was placed on injured reserve.

In that Indianapolis game, Clark caught one pass before leaving with a knee injury that also kept him out of the next game.

“He’s a good tight end,” McGowan said. “I see Peyton likes him and he likes the other receivers. The defensive backs are going to have our hands full this week.”

Clark had 14 catches last Sunday, one less than the NFL record for tight ends, in a 20-17 win over the Houston Texans. His 60 receptions lead the AFC.

Rodney Harrison, who retired early this year after six seasons as a Patriots safety, is impressed with McGowan.

“I watched him play well against Tony Gonzalez,” Harrison said. “He’s a guy that’s a smart kid. He’s always in the right place.

“Peyton’s going to go to all his (receivers) so you always have to cover all his guys. You have to pay attention to the run game as well. … They choose to pass the ball because now a 5-yard pass play to Dallas Clark is like a 5-yard run and they’re very content with having second-down-and-4 against any team.”

McGowan is one of several new starters on a defense that became younger with the retirements of Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi and trades of defensive end Richard Seymour, linebacker Mike Vrabel and cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Yet the Patriots have allowed the second-fewest points (only the Colts have been better) and the seventh-fewest yards in the NFL.

Cornerback Leigh Bodden signed as a free agent after playing five years with the Cleveland Browns and last year with the Detroit Lions when they went 0-16. A game against the Colts (8-0) is one reason he chose the Patriots (6-2).

McGowan didn’t focus on the rivalry between the AFC powers when he signed.

“I never thought of it like that,” he said, but “it’s a pretty cool game.”

McGowan goes into Sunday with three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery this season. His 46 tackles are second on the team to strong safety Brandon Meriweather, who also is having a strong season.

But they haven’t faced a player like Clark, who runs well after making a catch.

“The quarterback gets him the ball with the chance to run with it, but he’s very good,” Belichick said. “He’s fast and he’s got good balance. He’s strong. Tight ends are hard to match up against. The (defensive backs) don’t have the size and the linebackers usually can’t match their speed and quickness.”

McGowan expects the coverage plan to be similar to that for other tight ends.

“It’s not really much different,” he said. “You’ve just got to watch tape, get in there and try to find out his weaknesses.”


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