Once Again, Wilfork Anchors Patriots’ Defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Three trips to the Pro Bowl apparently were not enough. Anchoring the defense only on certain occasions would not do, either.

No. New England Coach Bill Belichick wanted more from Vince Wilfork this season, despite Wilfork’s exceptional play in his first seven years with the Patriots, which included helping the team make two Super Bowls and win one.

It is safe to say that Wilfork probably exceeded Belichick’s expectations. He is headed to his fourth Pro Bowl, but, more important to him and his coach, the Patriots are in Sunday’s A.F.C. championship game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Wilfork was an almost ubiquitous presence on defense for the Patriots this season, one of only two defensive players to start all 16 games. (Linebacker Rob Ninkovich was the other.) And he was on the field most of the time. In front of a crowd of news media members that included TV crews, linebacker Jerod Mayo said Wednesday: “You rarely see a defensive lineman playing 90 percent of the snaps. He’s one of those guys, I don’t want to say his weight on camera, but he’s a big guy, you can all see that. That’s very impressive in its own right.”

Wilfork, who is listed at 325 pounds, bounced from position to position, playing tackle, nose tackle, when the Patriots went to a 3-4 defense, and even defensive end for one game. He led the defensive line in tackles with 74, although he noted Wednesday that his wife thought he was not making enough of them. For the first time in his career, he scored a touchdown, recovering a fumble in the end zone during the Patriots’ 34-27 victory at Washington on Dec. 11.

“I thought he had an outstanding year last year, but this year he has even gone a step higher,” Belichick said. “He has played a lot of plays. He has become an every-down player, not just a situational player. He has performed whatever role we asked of him, done a lot of different things for us and done them well. He has shown a lot of versatility.”

Even more memorable were Wilfork’s two pass interceptions — “legendary,” Belichick called them. One came against San Diego, the other against Oakland, and Wilfork rumbled a total of 47 yards after the picks.

“A lineman’s dream,” Wilfork said. “I think having the ball in your hands as a lineman, that’s a dream come true. Too bad it wasn’t a touchdown.”
While Wilfork has had another notable season, he is also part of a defense that has been consistently porous, starting with the surrendering of 488 yards in total offense to Miami in the season opener. The Patriots were ranked last in the A.F.C. in total defense for 15 of the regular season’s 17 weeks. They were ranked next to last the other two weeks.

The main weakness, however, was not along the defensive line, where Wilfork does his dirty work. It was the secondary. New England’s pass defense was ranked last in the A.F.C. for all but one of the 17 weeks (and next to last in the other week.) In only four of the Patriots’ 16 games did an opposing team pass for fewer than 300 yards. The rushing defense, however, was never lower than eighth over all in the conference.

Asked if he thought the Patriots’ overpowering offense made the defense less critical, Wilfork said, “I don’t believe that.”

He added, “If you can’t stop anyone, you can’t win.”

Wilfork is the sole defensive holdover from the Patriots’ last Super Bowl championship, when they defeated Philadelphia, 24-21, in Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005. That Patriots team had defensive players like Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin and Rodney Harrison. This one? Not quite so intimidating.

But where naysayers see bad defensive statistics, Wilfork sees a unit good enough to help the Patriots to a 13-3 regular-season record and the No. 1 seeding in the conference. Where doubters point to a porous secondary, Wilfork counters with the team’s conference-leading plus-17 turnover margin, which included 23 interceptions, the most in the A.F.C.

And the Patriots’ defense is coming off perhaps its best game of the season, having shut down Tim Tebow and the Broncos last weekend. Denver managed just 252 total yards, and the clearly flustered Tebow was 9 of 26 passing while being sacked five times.

“All year we had confidence,” Wilfork said. “The main thing is guys believe. There is not a week that we come in here and guys don’t believe what we are capable of doing as a defense. It can take us a long way.

“We don’t want to be good; we want to be great, especially at this time. You want to be able to make the game-changing plays and great situational plays. All that comes in, but this team won’t go away.”

No, it has not. This will be the sixth appearance in an A.F.C. title game for the Patriots under Belichick. They have only lost once, at Indianapolis in January 2007. They have not lost any at home, and Wilfork wants to make sure it stays that way Sunday.

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