Patriots coping after injuries to Bruschi, Wilfork, Sanders

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- With just three regular-season games left, there's plenty of uncertainty surrounding the New England Patriots.

Will they make the playoffs for the sixth straight season? And, if they do, how many of their first-string defenders will be able to play in them after three more were injured in Sunday's 24-21 win at Seattle.

"We had a lot of players step in for us defensively," coach Bill Belichick Monday.

That's been a season-long pattern.

Only five of the defensive players who started the season opener were physically able to play at the end of the victory over the Seahawks. The Patriots lost three key players in the first half -- linebacker Tedy Bruschi with a left knee injury, nose tackle Vince Wilfork with a shoulder injury and safety James Sanders with a rib injury.

They already were without safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Adalius Thomas, both on the injured reserve list and done for the season. Defensive end Ty Warren missed his third game in four weeks with a thigh injury.

And on offense quarterback Tom Brady went on injured reserve after the first game and running back Laurence Maroney joined him after the fifth.

Yet the Patriots still have a chance to reach the playoffs. At 8-5, they're in a three-way tie with Miami and the New York Jets for the AFC East lead.

"It's a testament to the system and the coaching staff and what they do with schemes," recently unretired linebacker Junior Seau said in a conference call Monday from San Jose, where the Patriots are preparing for Sunday's game against the Raiders in Oakland. "Obviously, being competitive in the NFL with the injuries that have occurred this season, it's pretty impressive that we're still in the hunt."

Seau rejoined the Patriots last Thursday to add depth at the depleted linebacker spot. The previous day, linebacker Rosevelt Colvin returned. He hadn't played since being cut by Houston in training camp after New England allowed him to leave as a free agent after last season.

Bruschi returned to Boston after Sunday's game and was examined, although no results were released. Belichick had no updates on the injuries. The next indication of the severity of the injuries would come Wednesday when the Patriots issue their first practice participation report of the week.

They also played Sunday without linebackers Pierre Woods, Thomas' replacement who has a jaw injury, and Vince Redd, suffering from an ankle injury. There was another brief scare when 12-year veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel was shaken up. But he missed just one play before returning to lead the defense.

Belichick said Vrabel, defensive end Richard Seymour and safety Brandon Meriweather kept the defenders working together.

"Those guys are involved with a lot of communication and adjustments we had to make, by nature of their position," Belichick said. "They were really solid that way, especially Mike as the signal-caller. He's very good, probably as good as anybody could possibly be in that situation with the number of things he has to handle."

With all the injuries, defensive linemen Mike Wright and LeKevin Smith played more than expected.

"They play behind some very good players and I think they've learned from them and" defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, Belichick said. "When they've gotten a chance to play in the past, they've done a solid job for us."

They may have to keep doing it against the Raiders on Sunday and in the final two games -- at home against Arizona and at Buffalo.

Miami would win the AFC East by winning its remaining three games against San Francisco, Kansas City and the Jets. The Jets would take the division with victories in their three games against Buffalo, Seattle and Miami. The Dolphins and Jets currently have the tiebreaker edge if either ties the Patriots for the division's best record.

A wild-card berth appears to be even a longer shot for New England, which trails Indianapolis and Baltimore by one game in that race.

For now, Belichick is focusing on Sunday's game against the struggling Raiders, not on what his team must do to make the playoffs.

"I'm sure if we do, somebody will let us know," he said.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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