SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -Rodney Harrison didn't get terribly worried when the New England defense was humiliated by the lowly Miami Dolphins last month.
And after the Patriots got back to normal in a win over San Francisco last week, the veteran safety didn't get terribly excited.
With a long history of consistent success and a talent-laden group of players, this perennially stingy bunch doesn't stake its self-worth on any single outing - at least not until the Super Bowl.
``Against the Dolphins, (people said) we were the worst secondary in the league,'' Harrison said Thursday, rolling his eyes after another sunny California workout for the road-tripping Patriots.
``Now, because we have three interceptions (against the 49ers), everyone wants to say we're the best secondary in the league,'' he said. ``That's not the way to look at it. It's just a process that we have to go through every week.''
biggest test of the young season Sunday night at San Diego (2-3). The coaching staff played old-school rap from the speakers around the Spartans' turf before Harrison and his defensive teammates went to work on the game plan for the Chargers.
Even after getting shredded by the Dolphins and their unorthodox use of running back Ronnie Brown, the Patriots still rank among the NFL's better defenses, both statistically and in their opponents' eyes. One bad game couldn't shake the Patriots' confidence, but the way they recovered from that game gives them ample hope for the future.
``Everybody on this defense knows what we can do when we're healthy and together,'' said defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who returned to the Patriots' lineup midway through last season's Super Bowl run.
Although Harrison acknowledges New England started tentatively against the 49ers and maverick offensive coordinator Mike Martz last weekend, they regained their swagger almost immediately when safety Brandon Meriweather intercepted a long tipped pass while flat on his back.
It was the type of heady play the Patriots have made regularly under Bill Belichick - and exactly what they'll need against the Chargers, who desperately need a big win to stop their season from sliding any further.
ak, few teams have handled the Chargers' talent-laden offense better than New England.
In two playoff victories and a regular-season win last fall, the Patriots have allowed just 47 total points. New England saved its best defensive effort for last season's AFC championship game, holding San Diego's own injury-scarred roster to four field goals in a 21-12 win.
``I don't know how much of it has been bad blood,'' linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. ``It's just been big games. Whether it's a playoff victory or a playoff loss, one team feels great because you get to move on, and the other team feels bad because your season is over. If anything, that's just where it ends. I respect their players.''
New England kept last season's impressive defense largely intact, making just two changes among the regular starters. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal, a native of nearby Milpitas, Calif., is picking up the defense quickly after signing with the Patriots on Sept. 1 as the replacement for Asante Samuel, while dynamic rookie Jerod Mayo has bolstered the linebackers after Rosevelt Colvin's departure.
s.
``It's just another football game,'' said Harrison, who played nine seasons with the Chargers and still counts several San Diegans among his good friends. ``They might have bad blood, but we're going into this game with confidence and not a sense of hostility or bitterness.''
The Patriots also hope they get an audience with former teammate Junior Seau, the standout linebacker who's back home in effective retirement in San Diego after parting with New England in the offseason.
``Hopefully we can sneak over to his restaurant and get some free food,'' Harrison said.
Notes: Backup TE David Thomas wasn't on the field with his teammates during the first part of Thursday's practice. WR Kelley Washington (ankle), RB LaMont Jordan (ankle) and LB Eric Alexander (hamstring) also didn't suit up.

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