By ERIC McHUGH
The Patriot Ledger


You might recall the last time the New England Patriots tangled with the St. Louis Rams.

OK, who are we kidding? The images of Super Bowl XXXVI are seared into your memory - Ty Law returning an interception 47 yards for a touchdown; David Patten elevating in the end zone for a TD catch just before halftime; and Adam Vinatieri splitting the uprights at the final gun.

Since the winners get to write history, what often gets overlooked from that 20-17 victory is the fourth quarter, when the Patriots nearly staged the greatest choke job in Super Bowl history by blowing a 17-3 lead.

St. Louis' ‘‘Greatest Show on Turf'' offense, dormant for the first 45 minutes, erupted late. Partly that was because it was tough to keep Kurt Warner and company down for too long. Partly it was because the Patriots' offense went AWOL in the second half, leaving the tiring New England defense no time to catch its breath.

Nearly three years have come and gone between that game and Sunday's belated ‘‘rematch'' at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis (4:15 p.m., Ch. 4). There is one carryover, though - should the Patriots' defenders' tongues be dragging on the carpet again, disaster will likely follow.

As you no doubt have heard, the Patriots' secondary is in shambles with starting cornerbacks Ty Law (broken foot) and Tyrone Poole (knee) sidelined. That puts a high priority on limiting the exposure of their backups (some combination of Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Eugene Wilson) to the Rams' high-octane offense.

The Patriots' offense could be a huge help there, but only if it doesn't duplicate last week's effort in Pittsburgh when Tom Brady's guys held the ball for just 17 minutes, committed four turnovers, and - in a decisive four-possession stretch in the first half - ran only eight plays, none of which generated a first down.

The Patriots' B team defensive backs can't give up any big plays if they're lounging on the sidelines, so hogging the ball instead of handing it right back to the Rams becomes imperative.

‘‘We are going to do everything we can to try to give our defense some help in terms of trying to stay on the field,'' vowed Brady, who accounted for three turnovers (two INTs and a fumble) in the 34-20 loss to the Steelers that snapped the Patriots' record 21-game winning streak. ‘‘... You don't want to go three-and-out and turn the ball over against (the Rams). You want to be able to control the clock.''

That sounds like a plea for Corey Dillon to get healthy. The Patriots' leading rusher, who sat out the Pittsburgh loss with a thigh injury, could be the New England secondary's best friend on Sunday, especially with No. 1 receiver David Givens (knee/questionable) joining the usual WR suspects (Deion Branch and Troy Brown) on the injury report.

In the good news department, the Rams' defense isn't scaring anybody. St. Louis ranks 27th against the run, 23rd against the pass and 25th in points allowed. Most disturbing has been the Rams' stunning decline in forcing turnovers - from a league-high 46 a year ago to just six through seven games this season. Only Dallas (five) has fewer takeaways.

Four of St. Louis' takeaways came against Tampa Bay in Week 6, including a 93-yard fumble return for a touchdown by safety Adam Archuleta. Last week, though, the well ran dry again, even though the Rams were playing a Dolphins team that was leading the league in giveaways.

‘‘That comes in spurts, I think,'' Rams coach Mike Martz said. ‘‘We have to pressure the quarterback, create errant throws. We hadn't been pressuring them, up until a few weeks ago, as well as we should have with our front four.''

Despite his reputation as an offensive whiz, Martz has emphasized defense in his five drafts, addressing that side of the ball with his three first-round selections in 2001 as well as his first two picks in both 2002 and 2003.

Unfortunately for St. Louis, that approach has not paid off yet.

‘‘I know that you do win on defense,'' Martz said. ‘‘I like to tease (about how offense is king) but it has been my ambition to be the best defense in the league. I really would like to get there.''

Brady often excels in that spread-'em-out-and-fling-it offense. If Dillon sits out again, that figures to be the strategy against St. Louis, even though it comes with inherent risks - turnovers and/or quick possessions that would mean more snaps for the Pats' shorthanded secondary.

‘‘You don't want to turn the ball over ... and make bad plays,'' Brady said, ‘‘but at the same time you don't want to be gun shy at all either. If a guy is open, you throw it.''

And hope that the chains and the clock keep moving.

Eric McHugh may be reached at emchugh@ledger.com.