Is it time for the New England Patriots to fret? Perhaps.

It was clear that nothing would be easy for the Patriots this season as they pursued a fourth Super Bowl title in five years. Coach Bill Belichick lost coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis after last season's Super Bowl triumph, and his defense lost two mainstays when cornerback Ty Law was released in the offseason and linebacker Tedy Bruschi was sidelined after suffering a stroke in February.

But things have been even rockier than expected. The Patriots lost another defensive leader, safety Rodney Harrison, to a season-ending knee injury during a triumph at Pittsburgh 10 days ago, and Sunday's lopsided defeat at home to the San Diego Chargers left their record at 2-2. The upcoming schedule is unyielding: The Patriots' next two games are on the road at Atlanta and Denver and, after a bye week and a home game against Buffalo, the Indianapolis Colts come to Gillette Stadium early next month.

The key for the Patriots, it appears, is to tread water through the first half of the season and give themselves a chance to make a second-half run. They still have six divisional games left against the less-than-overwhelming competition in the AFC East. The Miami Dolphins have improved, but the Bills and New York Jets have quarterback problems and are struggling mightily.

The Patriots have traveled bumpy roads to Super Bowl triumphs before. The key step now is for first-year coordinator Eric Mangini to straighten out the defense, and there have been reports that Bruschi still might be contemplating returning to play this season.

Should They Pack It In?

The starting quarterback turns 36 in five days and is nearing the end of his career, and the team is headed nowhere. There's a rookie quarterback on the roster who was a first-round draft choice. The way of the NFL would be to give the kid a chance to play at some point this season.

The question is: Do the normal rules apply to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers?

Monday night's near-miss loss at Carolina dropped the Packers to 0-4, and Favre threw his eighth interception of the season. Favre still can play, as he demonstrated Monday when he threw four touchdown passes and nearly led the Packers back from a 32-13 fourth-quarter deficit, only to be stopped in Panthers territory on a last-gasp drive in a 32-29 defeat.

But it's looking more and more like it's a rebuilding season for the Packers -- and like Favre might have hung around for one season too many. Green Bay used its first-round pick in April on Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and it will be interesting to see if Coach Mike Sherman finds some playing time for the rookie as the season progresses.

The thing that might hold Sherman back is the laughably forgiving nature of the NFC North: The Packers have one fewer victory than the division leaders. The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions are tied for first place with 1-2 records, and the Minnesota Vikings are 1-3. . . .

The San Francisco 49ers plan to promote rookie Alex Smith, the top overall pick in this year's draft, ahead of veteran Tim Rattay as their starting quarterback this week, an NFL source said last night. . . .

Lions Coach Steve Mariucci said he had two long conversations Monday with Mike Pereira, the NFL's director of officiating, about tight end Marcus Pollard's sliding catch in the end zone on Sunday that would have produced a winning touchdown for Detroit but was overturned by instant replay. The Lions lost to Tampa Bay, 17-13.

Mariucci said during his news conference Monday he still thinks that Pollard made a legal catch, but Pereira backed the instant-replay reversal, indicating he didn't believe Pollard had control of the ball before going out of bounds. "We agreed to disagree," Mariucci said. . . .

The unbeaten Buccaneers might withhold rookie tailback Carnell Williams from Sunday's game against the Jets at Giants Stadium. Williams is bothered by hamstring and foot injuries, and managed only 13 rushing yards on 11 carries against the Lions after running for 434 yards in his first three NFL games.

Coach Watch

A day after his team fell to 1-3 with Sunday's loss to the Falcons, Vikings Coach Mike Tice met with players for more than an hour -- and didn't include his assistants in the meeting. He reportedly told his players a story about his father teaching him not to quit in difficult times and several players spoke up about the club's apparent confusion with schemes and assignments.

New Vikings owner Zygmunt Wilf recently said publicly that he wasn't considering firing Tice, but Tice is one of a few head coaches league-wide who doesn't seem ensured of keeping his job all season. With Houston still winless, Texans Coach Dom Capers also could be in jeopardy, and there is growing speculation around the league about Sherman's job security in Green Bay even though he signed a contract extension before the season. . . .

It appears that the New Orleans Saints will be able to sell out their next home game in San Antonio. They announced Monday that only 2,200 tickets remain available for an Oct. 16 game against the Falcons at the Alamodome. The club sold all but about 6,000 of the approximately 65,000 seats for Sunday's win over the Bills, and Coach Jim Haslett and his players credited the crowd's enthusiasm with playing a significant role in their victory.

Tackle Wayne Gandy said after that game that the Saints have been toughened by their early-season experiences after being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

"This team is totally different than other Saints teams," Gandy said in the locker room. "There's a resolve to this team. Good or bad, this team is going to fight until the end. If anything has come out of this mayhem, it's what this team seems to be." . . .

The Bills are taking their lumps as quarterback J.P. Losman endures some growing pains. Coach Mike Mularkey sat Losman in the fourth quarter Sunday after the second-year pro completed only 7 of 15 passes for 75 yards and was sacked three times. Veteran Kelly Holcomb got nothing started in the fourth quarter, though, and Mularkey said afterward that he is committed to Losman.

"J.P.'s the starter and I'm going with J.P.," Mularkey said. "I think everyone understands that."

The Bills finished last season strong under former starter Drew Bledsoe but decided in the offseason to go with Losman, a first-round draft selection last year. Bledsoe was released after declining to take a pay cut to serve as Losman's backup and mentor, and Holcomb was signed as a free agent.

Losman was solid in the season-opening win over the Texans but hasn't had more than 11 completions or 113 passing yards since then. The Bills, however, have tied their long-term fortunes to Losman's development, and Mularkey said he didn't think that Sunday's benching had shaken Losman's confidence.

"If he is, I'm not seeing it," Mularkey said. "He's a competitor and obviously anyone in that position would be affected by it. But I haven't seen it mentally and I don't foresee it happening."

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has had to deal with the loss of both coordinators and several key players.