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Hitting It Off An aggressive but more mature Rodney Harrison has shored up New England's secondary


Patriots 17 Titans 14

THESE DAYS New England Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison
finds that revenge is best served cold, with a touch of
self-control. Against Tennessee on Oct. 5 the 31-year-old
Harrison was driven to the ground by a block from Titans left
tackle Brad Hopkins, who, according to Harrison, punctuated the
play by jamming a forearm against his throat. Three months later,
in the teams' rematch in the AFC divisional playoffs, Harrison
got even. On Tennessee's fifth play last Saturday, he steamed
through a block and met Hopkins head-on. "I was looking for
revenge, but I was determined it would be a clean hit," says
Harrison, who had a reputation for being a dirty player before
arriving in New England this season. "I looked him right in the
eye." Harrison's right forearm smashed into Hopkins's sternum,
flattening the bigger man.

"Got you back," Harrison said to Hopkins, careful to avoid the
appearance of taunting, which would have resulted in a 15-yard
penalty. "You're 320 [pounds]. I'm 215. How do you like that?"

In the relative quiet of the New England locker room after the
Pats' 17-14 victory over Tennessee, Harrison broke into a wide
grin. "I'll tell you what I'm pretty proud of," he said. "In the
last eight games of the [regular] season, and tonight, I've had
zero penalties. I think I'm the same guy, playing the same
hard-nosed game, but with age comes maturity."

Harrison has been a key figure in the Patriots' drive to their
third AFC Championship Game in the past eight years, and in -11°
wind chill against Tennessee he made two pivotal plays. Late in
the first quarter Harrison nudged Titans tight end Shad Meier
with an elbow, knocking him off his route, and made an
interception that helped set up the Patriots' second touchdown.
Then, on Tennessee's last play from scrimmage, a fourth-and-12
from the New England 42, Harrison blitzed for the seventh time in
the game, forcing quarterback Steve McNair to throw early--a
split second before Harrison leveled him. McNair's deep lob was
underthrown and dropped by wideout Drew Bennett. "Tonight,"
Harrison said, "just continues the most enjoyable year I've had
in pro football."

After nine seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Harrison landed
in New England last March and was determined to do two things:
play for a winner and clean up his tarnished reputation. Harrison
had been fined some $300,000 during his career for flagrant or
questionable hits, including a $111,764 fine and one-game
suspension last season for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Oakland
Raiders wideout Jerry Rice. Early in training camp last summer,
Harrison got off on the wrong foot, blasting Pro Bowl wideout
Troy Brown with a forearm and accidentally poking him in the eye.
Immediately, Harrison heard a couple of new teammates call him a
dirty player. "People thought I was washed up coming out of San
Diego," he says. "I had to prove myself all over again, and
that's how I play--hard but not dirty. But early on I was making
more enemies than friends."

That changed after the Patriots surprisingly cut Pro Bowl free
safety Lawyer Milloy for salary-cap reasons in the days leading
up to the season opener. After a 31-0 opening loss to the Buffalo
Bills, Harrison, who'd held off asserting himself as a team
leader, not wanting to rock the boat on a veteran unit, started
taking charge of the defense on the field. He was named a team
captain, and he had one of his best years, leading the Pats with
140 tackles and chipping in three interceptions, three sacks and
a forced fumble. He might be proudest of the fact that he has
been fined but once all season--a $10,000 sanction for what the
league ruled was an unnecessarily rough hit on Bennett in their
regular-season meeting.

"We know what he is: a classic football player who's made a huge
difference for us," says New England linebacker Ted Johnson.
"We're thrilled he's on our team."

--Peter King

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER TURNING POINT Harrison outmaneuvered Meier to make hisinterception, setting up the Pats' second TD.