Tom Brady could collect his third NFL MVP award in the coming weeks, but Vince Wilfork is the reason the New England Patriots are headed to Super Bowl XLVI.
The eighth-year pro was the most dominant defender on the field in the AFC Championship Game, and his penchant for disruption has been the catalyst in the Patriots' defensive resurgence.
New England held its last four opponents to an average of 18.7 points per game, recording 15 sacks and eight turnovers during that span. While most viewed the Patriots' defense as a liability, the recent improvement suggests the unit is certainly championship-caliber in critical areas.
Wilfork has been at the center of the movement with 15 tackles and 3.5 sacks in the past four games. His re-emergence as a disruptive force in the middle has attracted added attention from opponents, which has freed the rest of the Patriots' front seven to flow to the ball to make plays.
Given Wilfork's importance to the Patriots' unexpected defensive revival, the Giants will spend the next two weeks preparing for him. Here are three things that will stand out when they pop in the tape of the AFC Championship Game:
1. Wilfork owns the line of scrimmage against the run
Championship defenses are built upon the premise of stopping the run, and Wilfork is one of the best interior run defenders in the game. He demolishes blockers at the point of attack with his brute strength, and his ability to win against double-teams makes it difficult for opponents to find running room between the tackles.
At 6-foot-2, 325-plus pounds, Wilfork is a surprisingly nimble athlete with the body control to work around blockers. He slides and shuffles through gaps on movement plays up front, but also possesses the low center of gravity to effectively "two-gap" (when a defender is responsible for the gap on both sides of his initial alignment) at the point of attack. He forklifts and drives blockers deep into the backfield, and quickly disengages to get in on the tackle.
Ray Rice, held to 67 yards on 21 carries, quickly discovered the difficulty in finding creases against the Wilfork-led front. Rice finished the game with 11 carries of two yards or fewer, and only posted one run of 10-plus yards. That was just part of a three-game trend that has seen New England hold opponents without a 100-yard rusher.
2. Wilfork's power game sets the table for the Pats' pass rush
Part of the Patriots' defensive resurgence should be attributed to Bill Belichick's willingness to build the pass rush around Wilfork's power-based skills. The veteran is one of the best in the business at overpowering blockers with pure strength, and his ability to collapse the pocket up the gut forces quarterbacks off their sweet spots. Against the Ravens, Wilfork repeatedly harassed Joe Flacco on an assortment of bull rushes over the top of Ravens guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda. He forklifted and carried his assigned blocker three yards into the backfield, which prompted Flacco to release the ball before his receivers worked open down the field.
Wilfork's ability to create instant penetration also allows the Patriots' edge rushers -- Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich -- to take advantage of isolated matchups. The best way to a quarterback is to get pressure in his face because it forces him to flee the pocket to the outside. This routinely sends him into the waiting arms of a crashing defender for a sack or big hit. In the AFC Championship Game, Anderson was able to corral Flacco after Wilfork drove Grubbs into the backfield and pushed the quarterback out of the pocket.
3. The Patriots' three-man rush is effective due to Wilfork's relentless motor
To shore up the Patriots' woes against the pass, Belichick has used more eight-man coverage with only three rushers. The scheme is designed to take away the intermediate and deep areas of the field and force quarterbacks to settle for short passes. The Patriots get a consistent pass rush with the tactic due to Wilfork's ability to defeat double-teams at the line. He overwhelms and outworks blockers, and his relentless effort results in sacks when quarterbacks are unable to find open receivers against the suffocating coverage.
In looking at his first-quarter sack of Flacco, Wilfork defeated Matt Birk with his energy and persistence at line. He worked through two rush moves before winning with a power snatch to blow past the line and grab Flacco in the pocket. Whereas some rushers stop their feet and hands after being stoned initially, Wilfork's refusal to quit on the down resulted in an early sack that set the tone for the pass rush on the day.
For the Giants, the prospect of facing Wilfork on isolated rushes could be problematic with David Baas reeling from an abdominal injury. Baas spent part of the NFC Championship Game on the sideline, and his replacement, Kevin Boothe, lacks the strength or girth to keep Wilfork in check.