When the New England Patriots found themselves in a jam, they did what the Patriots always do. They put the ball in Tom Brady’s right hand, teed it up for Adam Vinatieri’s right foot and rode off into the sunset with a victory. Their 23-20 win at Pittsburgh – thanks to Brady, who completed his final 12 passes, and Vinatieri, who kicked the last of his three field goals, from 43 yards with one second left – was vintage Patriots. Injuries, though, are hardly the only troubling issue. The Patriots have committed six turnovers and forced three, a distinct departure from the last two years when they were plus-23 in the turnover margin. They’re tied for fourth in the NFL in penalty yardage, averaging 83.3 yards per game. In the last two seasons, they’d been called for 56.6 yards in penalties per game. Also, as Brady has matured and developed, he’s taken on more responsibility in the offense. But the way the Patriots look now, unable to get Cory Dillon untracked, they’re becoming one-dimensional. In three weeks, Brady has thrown the ball 123 times, second most in the NFL. The three times the Patriots won the Super Bowl, he didn’t throw more than 527 passes. When the Patriots slumped to 9-7 in 2002, Brady threw 601 passes. At his current pace, he’ll finish with 656. Of course if he’s lining up behind two rookies on the left side of the line, Brady won’t stay upright to throw that often. Lastly, there is the schedule. Their 21-game home winning streak will be challenged this week by a San Diego Chargers offense which, with LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates, is well equipped to exploit Harrison’s absence. After that, they travel to Atlanta and Denver. Later looms visits from Indianapolis and Tampa Bay, and a trip to Kansas City. The Patriots are fortunate enough to be a division where, with the Jets losing Chad Pennington and the Bills spinning its wheels behind J.P. Losman, the biggest challenge may come from Miami. But all that will get them is an invitation to the playoffs and one home game. If they survive that, then they’re probably looking at back-to-back trips to places like Indianapolis, Kansas City, San Diego, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. The Patriots still have one of the NFL’s best defensive lines and nobody has a better quarterback, kicker, coach or more determination. But what has separated New England from everyone else are the little things. In winning 37 of their last 42 games, the Patriots have won 15 times by a touchdown or less. When you add up the injuries, penalties, turnovers, offensive imbalance and the schedule, it’s not hard to do the math. It equals a new champion. Elsewhere around the league in Week 3: On the Chargers’ second play from scrimmage, Tomlinson went in motion from the slot and lined up at tailback. Drew Brees took the snap and quickly passed the ball to Tomlinson for 9 yards, drawing the loudest non-Eli Manning-related cheer of the night. It was the first pass Tomlinson caught this season. Forget that the Colts have played offensively-challenged Baltimore, Jacksonville and Cleveland. The 16 points they’ve allowed this season are less than they allowed in 12 of their 18 gameslast season. It was a tough day for kickers. Sebastian Janikowski missed a pair of field goals and the Raiders lose 23-20, Ryan Longwell shanked an extra point in the Packers’ 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay, and Cowboys kicker Jose Cortez (Van Nuys High) got slapped around by teammate Larry Allen when he missed a kick. It was even painful for those who got their kicks with Philadelphia’s David Akers falling down in pain after his one-legged boot beat Oakland. Billy Witz covers the NFL for the Daily News. He can be reached at (818) 713-3621 or [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! It also looks like a last hurrah. On the surface, Sunday’s victory, which improved them to 2-1, looks like the kind of victory that simply illustrates why New England has won three Super Bowl in four years. What it really is doing is masking cracks in the foundation. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREThe top 10 theme park moments of 2019 The most visible ones are injuries. The Patriots lost two key players against Pittsburgh – safety Rodney Harrison, who tore knee ligaments, and left tackle Matt Light, who was also carted off with a leg injury. New England has dealt with loss and injury before. Lawyer Malloy, a team leader, was cut the week before the 2003 season opener and after a rocky start, the Patriots won their final 15 games. A year ago, they lost Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law for the final three months. But these injuries will be harder to overcome. The loss of Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi (stroke) has robbed the Patriots of two of the defense’s leaders and, along with the retirement of Ted Johnson, gutted the heart of their run defense. Harrison’s injury further strains a secondary that lost cornerback Duane Starks to a shoulder injury Sunday and was without three others who didn’t even make the trip – cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay, and rookie safety James Sanders. If Light, whose status will be known Wednesday, is out for an extended period, his absence could be just as costly. That would leave two rookies – tackle Nick Kaczur and guard Logan Mankins – protecting Brady’s blindside.