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DEFENSE, DEFENSE

Just five days before they opened the regular season, the Patriots made a bold but economically essential move.

They released team captain and secondary leader Lawyer Milloy, whose salary proved too much of a burden.

The decision, which caught teammates and the rest of the NFL off guard, seemed more troublesome when Milloy, who signed with the Bills, led Buffalo to a 31-0 mashing of the Patriots in the season opener.

My, how things have changed.

Almost five later, the decision to release Milloy and the restructured Patriots secondary no longer are being second-guessed.

In the 17 games since the opener, the Patriots secondary has distinguished itself in a manner that rapidly is becoming legendary. The players shut you down. They squeeze you out. They punish you for being too bold.

Of course, since that opening Sunday in Buffalo, they have been on a mission.

"We have a pretty prideful group here, and then that Buffalo game was an embarrassment to all of us," cornerback Ty Law said. "I think we did need that because after everything that happened in the beginning with Lawyer, losing our team captain and my best friend, it was like, "You know what? We're still football players.' No one man wins a football game.

"(Milloy's release) was no excuse to go out there and put on a display like that. Even if Lawyer was playing, we would have lost the game because of how poorly we played as a team. It was a point of being embarrassed so bad that we wanted to come out and prove to everybody and ourselves that we are a better football team."

Central to the success of New England's secondary is Law, whose $9.45-million salary-cap number next season puts him in the same danger as Milloy. The nine-year veteran, long known for shutting down opponents' best receivers, had another career year and exemplified, at moments when his team needed him most, that he can be counted on to make a play.

"The best in the league," safety Rodney Harrison said. "I've seen this by the way he plays, his hard work, his commitment, his leadership, his intensity on and off the field. He brings so much to the game. I've never played with a corner like Ty Law. He's the total package. He can tackle. He can play zone or man, and he can play bump. He looks like a safety, but he runs like a corner."

A four-time Pro Bowl selectee, Law channeled any ill feelings he had after Milloy's release in the direction of a super season. His interception return for a touchdown against the Titans on Oct. 5 led to a 38-30 victory, and it came on a badly sprained ankle.

But what Law did to Colts receiver Marvin Harrison in the AFC Championship Game paints the true picture. He held Harrison to three catches and picked off Peyton Manning three times.

"I go out there and try to shut down anyone I play," said Law, the only starter in the secondary who was on the Patriots team that won the Super Bowl two years ago. "I'm not going to do that all the time. I understand that. I depend on my teammates just like everybody else does."

Rodney Harrison, a 10-year veteran who spent his first nine seasons with the Chargers, has been one of those dependable teammates.

Given the unenviable task of replacing Milloy, Harrison approached his new responsibility with the same fearless nature he has historically approached ball carriers.

Known for punishing hits, some he has been handsomely fined for, Harrison made his presence felt early in training camp when he leveled running back Kevin Faulk and receiver Troy Brown during routine drills.

The smackdowns, which at the time surprised even Law, helped Harrison establish his place.

"When I first came in, I really didn't make any friends. I made enemies," Harrison said. "No one really wanted to talk to me once I got in the locker room. I didn't care about that. It wasn't about me making friends. It was about me proving to people that I still had gas in my tank and that I could still play. As I spent some time with the guys, I realized they respected me and wanted me here. After that, I calmed myself down."

As the season progressed, Harrison was named team captain and began to put his mark on the Patriots defense.

"He's been a huge, huge impact on this defense," linebacker Ted Johnson said. "We lost a good player in Lawyer Milloy, too. But they have similar styles in how they play the game. Rodney's got a lot of credibility in the locker room just because he's a good guy."

One week after the loss to the Bills, the Patriots made another bold and rewarding decision. They moved rookie cornerback Eugene Wilson of Illinois to starting safety. He has started every game since and handed down some telling hits, including on Colts receivers Brandon Stokely and Reggie Wayne in the championship game that made Harrison jealous.

"It was unexpected," said the 23-year-old Wilson, who tied for the lead among NFL rookie with four interceptions. "I didn't expect to fit in as well as I have. I got moved back there, and I figured I would give it the best shot that I could. I've been making plays, and I feel comfortable back there. I think it was a pretty good move."

"He's been tremendous to this team," Harrison said. "For him to come in here and pick up the system so quickly then make the move from corner to free safety and play as physical as he's been playing, it's been great."

The other cornerback is nine-year veteran Tyrone Poole, who spent his first three seasons with the Panthers. Poole, who has played for Denver and Indianapolis since, said he isn't likely to be intimidated by ex-teammates, including receiver Muhsin Muhammad, whom he likely will see a lot of Sunday.

"I've always known that I can play," Poole said. "My spirituality teaches me that I'm the head not the tail. I don't know how long it takes other people to recognize when other people have success. But for me, every day I wake up and I am able to enjoy another day of successfulness."

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