Eugene Wilson, a second-round pick of the Pats in the 2003 NFL draft, was thrust into a starting role for the first time in more than two months. His response? Just 5:27 into Sunday’s game, Wilson intercepted Kellen Clemens’ only pass of the day and returned it 5 yards for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a lead they would never relinquish.

Free Eugene.

Rodney Harrison stopped short of saying that, but the New England Patriots strong safety does feel free safety Eugene Wilson is a victim of his environment.

“You saw it,” Harrison said after Wilson had a major effect on the Patriots’ latest win, 20-10, over the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. “Eugene’s been a starter his whole career, so it’s not like he can’t play. You make it sound like he can’t play. It’s just the depth that we have.”

A starter on the Patriots’ Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX championship teams his first two seasons in the league, the Illinois product had lost battles this year to ankle and groin injuries and the development of James Sanders.

With Sanders battling a knee ailment of his own at the moment, Wilson, a second-round pick of the Pats in the 2003 NFL draft, was thrust into a starting role for the first time in more than two months.

His response?

Just 5:27 into Sunday’s game, Wilson intercepted Kellen Clemens’ only pass of the day and returned it 5 yards for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a lead they would never relinquish.

“It was a zone play,” said Wilson. “We got great pressure on the quarterback (from Richard Seymour, whose end-zone hit on Clemens knocked him out of the game with a rib injury). He kind of just threw it out there. I was just like, ‘Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it.’ I broke on it and scored.”

Wilson was also sure-handed in scooping up a third-quarter fumble by Jets tight end Chris Baker at the New England 10 with New York driving for a score that could have narrowed a 17-7 deficit to a one-possession game.

“Most definitely,” the fifth-year player answered when asked if he’d found his performance particularly gratifying in light of his recent history in New England. “You always want to make plays and help your team win.”

Injuries have hampered Wilson the past two seasons, limiting him to four games last year, nine (six starts) this year.

“I’ve had some injury problems,” Wilson acknowledged. “When I get a chance, I’m going to try to do the best that I can.”

Patriots hit 21

With his interception return for a touchdown, Wilson became the 21st different Patriot to score a TD this season.

That ties the NFL record for most players scoring a touchdown in a single season, a mark previously shared by the 1987 Los Angeles Rams and the 2000 Denver Broncos.

Brady’s best

With a 12-yard sideline completion to wide receiver Randy Moss in the first quarter, Tom Brady moved to 4,117 passing yards this season, a career high.

Brady finished a lackluster day (14-for-27, no touchdowns, one interception) with 140 yards, pushing his season total to 4,235 yards.

Brady’s previous career high in passing yards came in 2005 when he threw for 4,110.

Moss later became the 15th player in league history to exceed 12,000 receiving yards in his career, eclipsing the mark with a 46-yard catch in the fourth quarter that upped his total to 12,043 yards.

Welker bats 1,000

After totaling 1,121 yards over his first three seasons in the league, wide receiver Wes Welker is making the most of his first year in New England.

Welker exceeded the 1,000-yard plateau in reception yards when he caught a 16-yard pass in the fourth quarter, giving him three catches for 30 yards in the game, 96 receptions for 1,004 yards this season.

Watson can’t answer call

The Patriots’ inactives included tight end Benjamin Watson, whose absence with an ankle injury explains the team’s decision to sign free agent Stephen Spach on Thursday.

The Patriots took another hit at the position when Kyle Brady left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury of his own.

In dire need of bodies at the position, the Patriots used backup tackle Wesley Britt at tight end. Aside from a false start penalty that took his team out of a third-and-one situation, Britt managed to emerge from the day unscathed. 

Along with Watson, safety Rashad Baker, wide receiver Troy Brown, third quarterback Matt Gutierrez, wide receiver Chad Jackson, guard Stephen Neal, Sanders and guard Billy Yates were inactive for New England.

Neal (shoulder), Sanders and Yates (foot) were injury-related decisions.
 
New York’s inactives included defensive end Kareem Brown, the Patriots’ fourth-round draft pick the Jets claimed off waivers on Nov. 29.

Along with Brown, guard Jacob Bender, wide receiver Chris Davis, defensive end Eric Hicks, offensive tackle Adrian Jones, linebacker Marques Murrell, tight end Jason Pociask and third quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo were inactive for the Jets.

The Enterprise