FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -The Patriots are renowned for throwing new defensive twists at opponents.
Here's one they'd like to show on Sunday: stopping long drives and getting the ball back into Tom Brady's hands faster.
After two of their weaker defensive games of the season, unbeaten New England is determined to improve against the San Diego Chargers in the AFC championship game.
In their 38-35 win in their regular-season finale, the Patriots defense allowed four touchdown passes by Eli Manning of the New York Giants. In last Saturday night's 31-20 playoff win, it controlled Jacksonville's strong running game but allowed four scoring drives of at least nine plays.
``I thought we played a run pretty well, but when you don't get off the field on third down, that's all negated,'' linebacker Mike Vrabel said Friday. ``For us, it comes down to third down.''
The Giants converted 6 of 10 third-down plays, while the Jaguars went 4-for-10. In the Patriots' other 15 games, opponents converted more than 40 percent of their third-down opportunities only twice.
``Certainly, if they have the ball for 12 or 14 plays, two things are happening,'' Vrabel said. ``One, Tom Brady doesn't have the ball, and two, they have a chance to score.''
What's changed since the first half of the season when the Patriots gave up more than 300 yards just twice?
Teams saw what worked for previous Patriots opponents and tried to copy that. And Rosevelt Colvin, part of an outstanding, rotating five-man linebacker group, was lost for the season with a foot injury after the 11th game.
That meant the remaining quartet of 38-year-old Junior Seau, 34-year-old Tedy Bruschi, 32-year-old Vrabel and 30-year-old Adalius Thomas had to take more snaps.
``Everybody had their roles, and when you lose a cog, you have to adjust,'' Bruschi said. ``And, of course, Rosey was making big plays for us - the sacks, the interceptions, the forced fumbles - and you minus that from an equation, of course other guys are going to have to do different things.''
Bruschi conceded that he doesn't recover as fast physically as when he was younger.
``Come Friday, Saturday, you start to feel good again and get ready to do it on Sunday,'' he said.
The Patriots should get a big break against the Chargers - three, actually.
Quarterback Philip Rivers and running back LaDainian Tomlinson have knee injuries and tight end Antonio Gates is slowed by a toe injury. All may play even if not at full strength.
But Bruschi praised Tomlinson's backups, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.
``Each one of those running backs brings a formidable threat that we have to stop,'' he said.
The Chargers listed Rivers as doubtful. Coach Norv Turner said a decision would be made at game time on his status. Even if he plays, his reduced mobility would make him an easier target.
The Patriots sacked Jacksonville's David Garrard once, but pressured him many other times.
It was a different story against Manning.
``I will say that the Giants game, I don't think that the front four, we didn't rush how we needed to rush,'' Vrabel said.
As they do in every game, they'll probably do some things Sunday that the opponent has never seen from them.
``We don't do things just for the sake of doing them. We try to do things that really are pertinent to what we are trying to stop,'' Vrabel said. ``We don't wait till halftime (to adjust). We try to come over on the sidelines and say, `This is working and this isn't working.'''
Vrabel tied for sixth in the NFL with a career-high 12 1/2 sacks. Bruschi led the Patriots in tackles. Seau had a career-high three interceptions. And Thomas was second on the team with 6 1/2 sacks and returned a touchdown 65 yards for a touchdown.
So there's still plenty of skill left in the ``'backerhood,'' as Bruschi calls them.
And plenty of motivation.
``One thing you learn as you get older and experience season after season after season,'' Bruschi said, ``is that the bigger the games get, the better feeling when you win them because you don't know if you'll be back.''

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