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Return policy is overhauled

Johnson earns shot on punts

FOXBOROUGH -- Maybe the Patriots did try to approach yesterday's 21-7 win over San Francisco like any other game. But there was one interesting experiment -- Bethel Johnson returning punts.

Johnson had one career punt return before yesterday, the 2003 second-round pick from Texas A&M returning one Opening Day last season against Buffalo for 2 yards.

Johnson has been an explosive kick returner, but the Patriots had kept him from punt duty likely because of his inexperience in a spot where fumbles can be especially costly. Johnson muffed a fair catch in the third quarter but recovered it. And he also showed why the team experimented when he took a first-quarter punt and ran it back 86 yards, but it was nullified by an Earthwind Moreland illegal block.

"There was no block in the back," insisted Johnson. "Of course, it's a great feeling to be able to run one back, and it made me more confident, but it's a very tough thing to do. There's a lot of stuff going on there. I did it in college because I had to."

Johnson might have been back there in part because Kevin Faulk sat out with a knee injury. The Patriots had to use Troy Brown on defense with all the injuries to the secondary. Officially, Johnson fielded four punts for 8 yards.

Johnson could give the Patriots major field position advantages in the playoffs if he could break punts like he does kickoffs.

"There are so many things you have to do," he said. "You have to read the ball, catch the ball, look up to see where everybody is. I have a new respect for anyone who does it."

Cherry picking
Je'Rod Cherry had a great day on special teams, downing one punt at the 1-yard line in the third quarter and slapping back another that was downed at the 4 in the fourth. Not bad for a guy who was cut two weeks ago and brought back last week. "It's a case where you have to use your athleticism," Cherry said. "Those are the plays you want to make on special teams. That's what it's all about. To get two of them like that, that's pretty tough to do." . . . The Patriots improved to 20-2 since 1993 when the opening kickoff temperature is 35 degrees or colder. It was 32 at game time . . . The Patriots' streak of 23 straight games of scoring first, including playoffs, ended when the 49ers got a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ken Dorsey to Steve Bush in the first quarter . . . Willie McGinest recorded a sack to give him 9 1/2 for the season, the most he's had in eight seasons. McGinest now has 72 sacks in his career, fourth on the Patriots' all-time list, a half-sack behind Tony McGee . . . Tom Brady's first-quarter interception by Dwaine Carpenter was his first at Gillette Stadium since Nov. 14, breaking a string of 62 passes without a pick at home.

The Patriots held out Ty Law (foot), Richard Seymour (knee), Eugene Wilson (thigh), Faulk (knee), Dexter Reid (shoulder), Matt Chatham (hamstring), and Daniel Graham (ribs). Jim Miller was the third quarterback . . . Seldom-used defensive linemen Ethan Kelley and Marquise Hill both played. Linebacker Don Davis started the game at free safety . . . Yesterday marked the Patriots' 114th consecutive home sellout . . . Niners receiver Cedrick Wilson fractured his left fibula, and left tackle Kwame Harris left the game with vision problems. The Patriots came out unscathed, although it appeared tight end Christian Fauria was limping afterward . . . McGinest said after practice tomorrow he'll watch his alma mater, Southern California, take on Oklahoma for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. Defensive back Randall Gay was mad about Louisiana State's loss to Iowa Saturday. "I was upset, but right now that is their problem. I'm just glad we won today," said Gay, who was wearing an LSU T-shirt . . . The Patriots will make coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel available to the media today . . . Brady said this 14-2 season was different than last year's. "I mean, every year is totally different," he said. "It's different players and different schemes. It's different teams you are facing. It's just different situations every week. And based on the situations we faced, 14-2 is pretty darn good and everyone is proud of that."

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