FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In a span of five plays in the fourth quarter, Rodney Harrison showed the Jacksonville Jaguars why he's still one of the most feared defensive backs in the league.
Less than 30 seconds after being called for a late hit out of bounds, the New England safety picked off David Garrard to clinch the Patriots' 31-20 AFC playoff victory over Jacksonville. It was Harrison's fourth consecutive playoff game with an interception, tying Aeneas Williams' NFL record.
"I'm not trying to break any records or anything like that. I'm just trying to help my team," said Harrison, who had a chance at another pickoff on a ball that was knocked down earlier in the fourth quarter. "I'm kind of disappointed that I missed one in the end zone. So, fortunately, one came back to me."
Harrison also has seven interceptions in seven playoff games with New England, tying a franchise record and fifth-best in league history. He'll have a chance to add to that Sunday, when the Patriots host San Diego in the AFC championship for a berth in the Super Bowl.
"I didn't play last year in the playoffs, so I'm excited," Harrison said. "We've got an opportunity, and that's all you can ask for, the opportunity to play in a big game. And we're going to relax, we're going to rest, and we're going to get back in here on Tuesday and we're going to learn from all of these bad mistakes that we made. And we're going to get better."
The Chargers earned the chance to come to Foxborough by beating the Colts 28-24 in Indianapolis on Sunday. Both quarterback Philip Rivers and 2006 NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson were injured during the game, watching from the sidelines as backup quarterback Billy Volek and backup running back Michael Turner led the Chargers to the victory.
"Going out on the road and winning in Indy today shows the kind of mental toughness they have," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters in a conference call shortly after the Chargers' victory. "They've got a very talented team. I think everybody realizes that."
The Patriots beat San Diego 38-14 in the second week of the season, and New England also knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs last January after they posted an NFL-best 14-2 record in 2006.
"A lot's happened since then. We'll definitely start all over on the preparations. It's like it's a new team," Belichick said. "Our whole season's at stake; so's theirs. I don't think anything that's happened in the past has much bearing on it."
Harrison was originally drafted by the Chargers in 1994, going to the Super Bowl with the team as a rookie. But he didn't make it back to the playoffs until after the Chargers cut him and New England signed him before the 2003 season.
He helped the Patriots win the Super Bowl the next two seasons, but played in just three games in 2005 before tearing three ligaments in his left knee and missing the rest of the season. Without him, the Patriots lost to Denver in the second round of the playoffs.
Last year, Harrison strained his right knee in the regular-season finale and missed all of the playoffs. Though he resumed practice the week before the AFC championship against Indianapolis, he didn't play and didn't get a chance to come back in the Super Bowl because the Patriots lost to Colts.
"It seems like it was just last week we were in Indy playing in that game. It seems like yesterday," tight end Benjamin Watson said. "So we're excited."
Harrison's vacation was extended into September with a four-game suspension after he admitted obtaining human growth hormone. But during the season Harrison returned to his role as one of the hardest-hitters in any secondary, a role he reprised with seven tackles -- and a few big hits -- on Sunday.
"It sends a message that it's going to be a physical day," Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "They were sweet. They left a bitter taste in your mouth. ... I think it just shows you the physicality of the secondary, that guys went out and hit people."
Some of the hits were a little too physical.
One of the most-fined and most-suspended players in league history, Harrison was called for unnecessary roughness on consecutive Jaguars drives in the fourth quarter. The first one helped jumpstart a Jacksonville drive that eventually stalled at the Patriots 7, resulting in a field goal that cut New England's lead to 28-20.
After the Patriots answered with Stephen Gostkowski's 35-yard field goal, Harrison handed the Jaguars another 15 yards and moved them past midfield after an 8-yard pass on fourth-and-5. But with 4:17 left in the game, Harrison picked off David Garrard and the Patriots ran the clock down to 32 seconds before Chris Hanson came out for his only punt of the night.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press