Defensive backs keys for Patriots
Most of New England's defensive backs are newcomers, but have been effective.
FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) -- New England beat Steve McNair and Peyton Manning in the playoffs by smacking their receivers and stealing their passes.
So if the Patriots' defensive backs could make the NFL's co-MVPs look ordinary, they should toy with Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme in the Super Bowl, right?
Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison knocked down that idea as if it were a tight end coming across the middle.
"The co-MVPs are at home while he's playing in the Super Bowl," Harrison said. "How are we going to get overconfident? We haven't done anything. We haven't won a Super Bowl yet."
Not this year, anyway.
They did that in 2002 against St. Louis. But cornerback Ty Law is the Patriots' only starting defensive back from that game still with the team. After last season, cornerback Otis Smith was cut and safety Tebucky Jones was traded to New Orleans.
Last to leave
The last starter to leave was safety Lawyer Milloy, an emotional team leader with four Pro Bowl appearances. He was released five days before the season in a contract dispute.
Four of the Patriots' top five defensive backs are newcomers this season. Harrison, a free agent signed in the off-season, spent his other nine pro seasons losing most of his games with San Diego.
The other starters have done just fine.
Harrison led the team in tackles and intercepted a pass in the end zone on Indianapolis' first drive of the AFC championship game.
Free safety Eugene Wilson, a rookie converted from cornerback, leveled Colts receiver Brandon Stokley on an incompletion over the middle.
Cornerback Tyrone Pole and Law led New England with six regular season interceptions apiece. Law added three pickoffs against Manning in last Sunday's 24-14 win in the AFC championship game.
Their tight coverage led to three sacks and an interception against McNair in the 17-14 playoff win over Tennessee, and four sacks and four interceptions against Manning. The co-MVPs threw just one touchdown pass each.
That's what Delhomme, a seven-year veteran and a first-year starter, will face in Houston. Steve Smith expects he and fellow receiver Mushin Muhammad to see the same hard-hitting style.
"Moose is more of a physical guy, I am the butterfly," Smith said. "I'm not with all that mugging and stuff, so I am not really worried about it. It is a part of the game and that is Ty Law's game and he is very successful with it."
In their 18 games this season, the Patriots have allowed only 11 touchdown passes thanks to a strong pass rush, mobile linebackers and tenacious defensive backs. They led the NFL with 29 interceptions and returned five for touchdowns.
Delhomme threw for 19 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in the regular season. He'll be throwing to receivers who could have one eye on the ball and the other on defenders barreling toward them.
New England tight end Christian Fauria found out how that felt when he played for Seattle against San Diego and Harrison.
"When I played against him, I made sure I was buckled up and I had my mouthpiece in," Fauria said. "Not because he was dirty, but he was just very physical."
In training camp this season, that style led to hard hits that angered teammates. Against Indianapolis, it forced a fumble by Marvin Harrison that was recovered by Poole at the Patriots 16-yard line.
Wilson has watched and learned.
"I'd say it rubbed off," he said.
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