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▲  4th Inning 2 outs

Banged-up secondary emerged with game-clinching play

Unit pressed rookie Dexter Reid into service

Rodney Harrison, right, runs away with the game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Rodney Harrison, right, runs away with the game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Life in the New England secondary isn’t necessarily a ticket out of town, but a career as a Patriot pass snatcher is a sure path to perdition.

Welcome to the troubled job market, Eugene Wilson.

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The talented defensive back became the latest casualty last night when he exited with a shoulder/ forearm injury in the final minute of the second quarter of the Patriots’ 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Wilson was hurt while trying to trip up speedy kickoff returner J.R. Reed.

Already without key secondary components Ty Law and Tyrone Poole for a long stretch this season, the already-compromised secondary had to shift down yet another gear.

Next to tiptoe up to the abyss: rookie Dexter Reid.

”I told him, `Hey, we need you. You have to step up,’ “ Rodney Harrison, the leader of the challenged bunch, said he told Reid at halftime. “That’s it. I told him, `You have to go out there and play, and if you don’t get the job done on one play, it doesn’t matter. Get up for the next one and move on.’ “

One more time, the patchwork Patriots secondary was equal to the task. There was indeed a drop off without Wilson, and that was evident with 1:55 to go in the fourth quarter when wide receiver Greg Lewis eluded Reid and snared a 30-yard Donovan McNabb TD pass.

Fittingly, though, it was the work of the secondary that ultimately put the finishing touch to the Patriots’ third Super Bowl championship in four years. McNabb, working from the Philadelphia 5-yard line, took the snap with 17 seconds to go, and fired a tipped pass into Harrison’s arms near the 28. Harrison advanced the ball 6 yards, hit the ground, and promptly broke into a celebratory, arms-waving dance around the field.

”That was a tough-fought game,” said Harrison, whose final moments in last year’s victory were far more subdued after he exited with a broken arm. “I’ll tell you, I was nervous back there, with Donovan in control of the ball with 17 seconds to go. He’s capable of making a play with his legs as well as his arm. There’s still the chance that maybe he hits T.O. [Terrell Owens] on a 70-yard slant and he takes it to the house.”

In part, said Harrison, it was breaking that tension that led to the dance.

”I was just so happy the game was over,” he said. “Before that throw, I was telling our guys, `Stay deep . . . stay deep and deeper.’ “

Despite the threat Owens presented, it was curious the Eagles didn’t go to him more, especially with Wilson sidelined in the second half. Owens played well (nine catches, 122 yards), despite being sidelined for 6 1/2 weeks with a mangled ankle, and everyone in Alltel Stadium was expecting him to become a frequent target in the second half.

Harrison, for one, was expecting more of a T.O. show.

”To do what he did today, that was incredible,” said Harrison, referring to Owens’s gallant return, which was against the advice of the orthopedic surgeon who repaired his ankle Dec. 22. “We knew he’d show up. We just didn’t want him to get big plays. I thought you’d see him doing more slants, in-cuts. I thought you’d see them take more shots with him. I’m surprised they didn’t take those shots.”

If they did, they may have been able to burn Reid, the raw rookie from North Carolina. Or they might have been able to turn cornerback Randall Gay inside out, upside down, and sideways. But the Eagles chugged along with their generally ineffective game plan, and hurt themselves with poor clock management on their final possession. They often looked disheveled, and sometimes nervous, especially in the first half.

”Guys just have to make plays,” said Harrison, further underscoring the significance of the New England defense, from the line all the way into the secondary. “Hey, with our team, you don’t know who it’s going to be, but it’s always someone - it can be [Tom] Brady and [Deion] Branch, or it can be [Tedy] Bruschi, [Willie] McGinest or [Mike] Vrabel on defense.

”It’s about players making plays.”

For extra incentive this time around, the veteran Harrison had Eagles wide receiver Freddie Mitchell. The former, and oft-disappointing first-round draft pick irked Harrison during a recent ESPN interview when he said he couldn’t name the members of New England’s secondary. He said he only knew Harrison, and he would have something waiting for Harrison at the Super Bowl. Not surprisingly, Mitchell never seemed to cross Harrison’s path.

”Of course it did,” said Harrison, asked if Mitchell provided him with extra incentive. “I told our guys, `Go out there now and make people know your number. Show the world who you are - this is a wonderful stage to do it.’

”I bet you he knows who they are now.”

Gay, who often was on T.O. patrol, didn’t think Harrison needed extra incentive.

”He’s going to play 125 percent, no matter what an opponent says about him,” said Gay. “He’s our glue back there. He’s a great player. He always reads the play on the ball and makes the play. I love playing with him.”

The road to perdition takes many turns. No one knows if Law will be back next season, his contract pricey. Poole has to heal. The same now for Wilson. Harrison hit the dirt here with a hip injury that kept him facedown, trying to regain his wind for a couple of minutes. But, in typical Harrison fashion, he was back for the next series.

”I’m going to rest now, relax, and get back at it in about a month,” said Harrison. “Time to enjoy this a little bit.”

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