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It hurt him to sit out

Johnson is back and contributing

FOXBOROUGH -- The Streak started without him.

In fact, it began while Ted Johnson languished on the injured list, what he described as "a lonely place."

Johnson, no stranger to the injured list after missing 28 games over the last five seasons, found himself there after suffering a foot injury late in the Patriots' 31-0 season-opening debacle at Buffalo last year. After starting the 2003 season at middle linebacker, Johnson missed eight games and the start of what has become an 18-game winning streak.

"Injuries really teach you a lot about yourself and about the game," said Johnson, who was inactive for the first five games of the streak, but will be present and accounted for when the Patriots attempt to extend their NFL-record run to 19 games when they host the Dolphins tomorrow at 1 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.

"You see it from a different perspective. When you do come back, you definitely approach your job a little differently. I make more of an effort to talk to the injured guys. It's a lonely place.

"Your commodity is your body. That's what you're selling to a team. If you're not physically able to play, what value do you bring?"

When you're injured in the NFL, you cease to feel like a useful commodity. You feel isolated from the rest of the team as it moves forward with the preparations for the next game.

"I definitely have grown a lot personally with my injury situation," said Johnson, who made his return last year to help the Patriots pin a 12-0 decision on the Dallas Cowboys, New England's first shutout since 1996. "Hopefully, it's made me a better player."

Johnson is healthy again, long since healed from the foot injury. He's even got a bounce in his step after registering 11 tackles in his second start of the season in last week's 31-17 victory over Buffalo in Orchard Park, N.Y.

"I feel good," Johnson said earlier this week. "However they want to play me is fine with me. It's a production business, so the more I can produce, obviously, the better for my situation. So I'm doing the best I can."

Johnson played a reserve role at middle linebacker in the 27-24 season-opening victory against Indianapolis, notching four tackles, before recording two tackles in a 23-12 victory at Arizona.

"Ted got off to a little bit of a slow start in training camp," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, referring to an undisclosed injury that kept Johnson from participating in the first exhibition game, against Philadelphia. "But he came on at the end and has played well for us this year."

Then came the Bills, and the 11 tackles. It was the most stops Johnson, the team's second-round pick (57th overall) in 1995, had recorded since a 24-7 loss to the Tennessee Titans Dec. 16, 2002, in which he made 12 tackles (7 solo). He followed that the next week with 10 stops (6 solo) and a forced fumble in a 30-17 loss to the Jets, his 100th career game with the Patriots.

"Any time you are in a long-term relationship, this is the sixth year I've been with Ted, including the '96 season, there are going to be some ups and downs," said Belichick, no doubt referring to the time his relationship with Johnson seemed strained when the coach put the player on the inactive list for the start of the 2002 season. "That is just the way it is. Ted is a pro. Football is important to him. He works hard. He is team oriented. He is not a selfish player at all. He wants to do the best he can to help the team win, and I totally respect that. "He is tough. He has had some tough breaks in his career, but he has always kept a positive attitude. He has always worked hard. He is one of the hardest workers we have. He was a team captain for us last year. He does a lot of things right, and you like guys like that."

Johnson re-signed with the team in February after reaching the end of a five-year contract.

"I think we all have a lot of confidence in Ted," Belichick said. "Ted has a style of play that is physical. It is tough. He makes a lot of plays in the running game. He runs well. He can take on the guards and the [running] backs.

"He is a good, solid player for us and a good blitzer. He has had good production. It is nice to have him on the field. It is nice to have a good complement and a good rotation there with Tedy [Bruschi], Roman [Phifer], and Ted.

"I think those guys all do a good job when they are on the field, and they all have a little bit of different skill sets, but they are all productive."

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