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Getting harder to doctor these reports

FOXBOROUGH -- Bill Belichick keeps insisting "I'm no doctor," but yesterday he was at least a doctor's assistant. Or maybe, in a weak moment, a reporter's assistant. Last Friday a beleaguered Belichick said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin's doctors were "going through the process that they go through, whatever that is exactly I'm not sure, to determine what the best course of action is and what is the best way to handle this particular injury" while Colvin was already in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital to have his fractured hip repaired by a team of surgeons.

Belichick had been badgered by a pack of reporters on Colvin's condition all week and had a testy Wednesday exchange with a reporter from the Worcester Telegram. Friday he ducked the issue until he released a statement at 3:38 p.m. that announced Colvin's surgery had taken place after the coach had implied he had no idea what was going on barely 90 minutes earlier.

Not desiring to repeat such verbal sparring this week, Belichick stepped to the microphone following yesterday's 23-16 victory over the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium and announced that nose tackle Ted Washington "has got a fracture in his leg so he will probably miss a couple of weeks . . . a few weeks."

A guy as large as Washington having a fractured leg is like a giraffe with a sore throat. It's a problem of considerable magnitude because about 375 pounds, give or take a Snickers bar, has to be supported by that fibula. It's amazing that happens even when the bone is in one piece, which it now is not.

The problem is compounded -- pardon the pun -- by the fact that it was the same fibula Washington broke a year ago in Chicago two games into the season.

So, whether he's out "a few weeks" or much longer, Washington is now the fourth defensive starter to be lost for at least some period of time, if you lump the execution-by-salary-cap of Lawyer Milloy in with the injuries to Colvin (out for the season even if he isn't yet on injured reserve), linebacker Ted Johnson (out at least half the season with a broken foot), and Washington.

Linebacker Mike Vrabel and cornerback Ty Law also were limping long before yesterday's game was over, although Law returned in the fourth quarter and limped only between plays while somehow running with Santana Moss whenever the ball was snapped despite a bad ankle.

Asked about Vrabel, Belichick did not say "I'm not a doctor" but he did say "I'm not telling you" in so many words.

"I don't know," he said about the severity of Vrabel's arm injury, which either means "I don't know" or "None of your damn business" or "Let's just keep that among friends, which you guys are not."

A source close to Vrabel, however, said last night Vrabel has a broken wrist or a broken arm.

For a team to have lost so many starters and still held on for a divisional win says much about the men wearing Patriots uniforms, but one wonders how long they can sustain that kind of effort with bodies falling all around them. For the season to continue successfully, veterans such as Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, and others must remind the young players who have replaced the lame and infirm that, as Bruschi put it yesterday, "You're not rookies anymore. We need you." "Our No. 1 attribute in this locker room is resiliency," Bruschi said. "No matter how high the chips are stacked against us, we count on our guys responding."

That they did yesterday, with rookie cornerback Asante Samuel intercepting a Vinny Testaverde pass and returning it 55 yards for what would prove to be the winning touchdown. They did it with rookie Dan Koppen playing center for Damien Woody, so Woody could move to guard and replace injured Mike Compton. They did it with veteran Rick Lyle replacing Washington, filling about 100 pounds fewer of the space Washington occupies but still holding his own at nose tackle. They did it with rookie cornerback Eugene Wilson again playing safety well enough that nobody noticed he was there and Milloy was not, which sometimes is all you're looking for. They did it with rookie nose tackle Dan Klecko stepping in for Vrabel and for Willie McGinest at times.

No one tried to downplay the losses the Patriots have faced the last two Sundays, for that would be denying the obvious. Instead, they simply refused to buckle under them, which is the best way to survive.

Harrison admitted that the loss of one top acquisiton after another has been "disheartening, but we have to step up. We have to become even closer and understand we have to move forward. It's tough when very important guys go down but we have to continue to focus.

"You lose leadership, experience, and talent [when players such as Colvin, Washington, and Johnson are hurt], but that's why you have a 53-man roster. When you go through trials and tribulations like this, it's a test. It happens in the NFL. You've got to keep moving. From a physical standpoint, you don't worry about [replacing them]. It's more of a mental challenge. Guys go down. You've got to keep going."

If you don't, no one will be sending you sympathy cards. No one will be feeling sorry for a Patriots defense depleted for a time by the loss of their biggest offseason acquisitions literally (Washington) and figuratively (Colvin). What the Patriots have to realize is that no one cares about their situation, least of all next Sunday's opponent.

"What good will it do focusing on injuries?" Woody said. "Those guys limping around won't help us beat Washington. Too many guys in here have worked too hard to just let the ship sink. We can't throw our season away because a few guys go down."

That is the message the veteran Patriots have to impart upon the people being asked to step in over the next few weeks and months. It will not be easy, because a lot of talent has been wounded, but for the Patriots' hopes for this season to remain unbroken each of the bodies that remain whole must focus not on the parts that are missing but on what remains intact until they return (whenever that is; I'm no doctor, either).

"This is the NFL," Brown said. "You hate to see people hurt, especially the real serious injuries, but it's a part of our sport. Hopefully guys don't get caught up in that. It happens all the time, though. You see guys thinking, `What are we going to do without so-and-so?' What you're gonna do is play without him. That's the only way to look at it. There's no time to look at it any other way.

"I tell these younger players they're not here because they can't play. They just have to be ready."

Ready for a few weeks, however long that turns out to be.

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