Foxborough - The Patriots defense struggled against quarterback Chad Pennington's short passing attack in their Nov. 12 loss to the Jets, but this time they were ready. On a first down play, with just under 2:00 left in the third quarter, linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who also had four tackles and a quarterback hurry in this wild-card game, rushed the right edge and got his hand on a quick screen pass intended for Jets wideout Jerricho Cotchery.
Colvin was disappointed he didn't get an interception on the well-timed play. He took off running, his hands over his facemask in a sign of frustration. But then third-year nose tackle Vince Wilfork noticed something:
The football was lying on the ground, unprotected.
"It was funny, because [fellow defensive lineman Richard] Seymour was actually - it was hitting his foot - and I'm like, 'Man, let me get this ball.' [Seymour] walked right over it. I just saw the ball on the ground, so any time the ball's on the ground, pick it up. You best pick it up, and that's what I did," said Wilfork after the game.
Easily the biggest member of the Patriots, Wilfork picked up the football and, doing his best impression of Bears return man Devin Hester's 108-yard field goal return against the Giants earlier this season, he walked a few steps before taking off like a shot.
Well, maybe not like a shot. More like a bowling ball that was given a really hard push.
"I got a little fame. I got a little shine on. I showed a little speed, just a little bit," said the 325-pound Wilfork with a smile. "Just a little… It was an appetizer."
"I'll look at film on myself," he joked, "critique myself and see what I need to work on."
Wilfork said he kept a firm grip on the football, which will soon find a place in his home trophy case, while lumbering down the field.
"I would hate to get the ball and fumble it," he said. "I'd be the laughing stock of this locker room. I had to cover it up. I look at Kevin Faulk and those guys, handling the ball, so I got a little ball-security."
Wilfork managed to gain 31-yards on the play, before Cotchery caught up to him and brought him down at the Jets 15 yard line. The Jets challenged the play, but upon review, the ruling was upheld: Pennington had thrown a backward pass, or lateral. By definition it was a fumble, since it wasn't a forward pass. Wilfork had recovered the fumble and was trucking for the end zone while everyone else treated the play like an incomplete pass.
"I seen [Colvin] bat the pass and I was getting ready to go congratulate Rosey [Colvin]," said fellow defensive lineman Ty Warren. "But of course [Colvin] ran about 50 yards down the field. So I wasn't fixing to burn any energy doing that. But then I seen Vince [Wilfork] running down the field, and I seen Bill [Belichick] giving the gesture like, 'Go.' So I was like, 'Okay, he's going.' We weren't sure what the call would be, but it was kind of funny. I think, actually, if he would have took off running when he first got it, he probably wouldn't have got caught."
What was Wilfork feeling during the run, his first chance to advance the football since high school?
"I don't even know the feeling, to be honest with you," he said. "I just saw the end zone, like, 'Man, that's a… that's a long way.'
"It felt good to have the ball in (my) hand. People say all the time, and I even do it, 'If I ever get the ball, I'm gonna do *this.' You're not going to *do nothing. You're going to try to run as far as you can. That's it. So, everybody, you could dream all you want, but don't have all these plans on what you're going to do, because everything is blocked out."
Four plays later, the Patriots turned the fumble recovery into a 28-yard field goal by rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski, extending the Patriots lead from seven points to 10, with the score now 23-13. Gostkowski hit all seven of his kicks (three field goals, four extra points) in this game.
In addition to the fumble recovery, Wilfork recorded three tackles and a quarterback hurry in this game, which was his first since injuring his right ankle back in the Week 14 game at Miami.
The injury sidelined Wilfork for three contests, with Mike Wright filling in. He traded reps with Wright in this game, but Wilfork said his ankle didn't bother him.
"Not at all," he said. "I didn't know how I was going to feel on [the ankle], being my first day back, but it held up pretty good. That's a good thing."
The Patriots defensive line worked together in this game, with backups Wright and Jarvis Green rotating in to keep the group fresh.
"Everybody chipped in," said fourth-year defensive end Warren. "I think everybody ate today, from myself to [Seymour] to Vince [Wilfork] to Jarvis [Green]. And that's been the case all year, if one guy doesn't step up, the next one does. This was just icing on the cake for everyone to contribute the way they did."
The defense allowed Pennington to throw for 300 yards (he went 23-for-40 passing), but stopped the Jets on a number of crucial third downs. New England entered this game having posted the 8th best third down conversion rate in the league (35.9 percent). The Jets converted just 27 percent of their third downs in this game, though the Pats had allowed them to convert 55 percent of third downs in their first two meetings this season.
Pennington only threw one touchdown pass in the game, a 77-yard catch-and-run by Cotchery, who racked up an even 100 yards receiving in this game, bringing his total to 291 yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots in the three Pats-Jets games combined.
"I was deep and missed the tackle," said safety Artrell Hawkins of the 77-yard touchdown. "I was deep enough, it was just a missed tackle."
The defensive line had looked particularly sloppy on a muddy Gillette Stadium field in their Nov. 12 loss to the Jets, and Warren indicated they were out to prove something in this game.
"I mean I think there was a little extra motivation there, both with that and some of the things that were said this week," he said. "So I think there was a little added motivation there."
Asked if coach Belichick had a little extra motivation in this game as well, Warren replied, "I'm sure there was a little something extra there for him too, you know what I mean. But he's done a good job. I think the players did a good job this week of just taking the high road and focusing on the task at hand. I think that's where the game was won."
Another place the game was won was at the line of scrimmage, where pressuring Pennington was a point of emphasis in this game.
"[Getting pressure on Pennington] was a real priority, just because he does a lot of dink passes," said Warren. "Real short and quick. So we had to get in his face and crash the pocket real quick on him. That makes him uncomfortable, so that was the emphasis this week."
The final score was 37-16. The Patriots will travel to San Diego to take on the Chargers next Sunday in the Divisional Playoffs. The Chargers went 14-2 in the regular season, leading the AFC and earning themselves a first-round bye, so they didn't play this weekend.
Quote of note:
Asked about the Chargers, Wilfork replied, "Hands down, (they're the) best team in the NFL, hands down. It's going to be a tough challenge. I think in all three phases of the game, defensively, special teams and on offense. They have weapons everywhere, so in order for us to win that game, we have to take our A-game. I mean A-minus- or B-game, and we *will *lose that game, so it's going to be a long week, a tough week. We have to prepare like we did for this last game and I think we'll be okay. It'll be an exciting football game. It'll be a dogfight. There's going to be a lot of emotions going into that game, a high-intensity game. Right now we just got to enjoy this win for a couple hours and get started on San Diego stuff."
Jabar gaffs Jets defenseWide receiver Jabar Gaffney, playing in the first playoff game of his five-year career, grabbed eight passes for 104 yards against the Jets. His highest yardage total in the 2006 regular season was 65 yards, gained on three catches against the New York Jets on Nov. 12. His 2006 regular-season high for receptions was three, achieved twice, on Nov. 12 and also on Dec. 24 at Jacksonville. Gaffney joined the Patriots as a free agent on Oct. 9, 2006 after spending the first four years of his career (2002-05) with the Houston Texans.
Asante says "thank you" again
Cornerback Asante Samuel, whose first name means "thank you" in Swahili, intercepted a Pennington pass intended for Justin McCareins and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown with 5:04 left in the game, giving the Patriots a 37-16 lead. The interception was Samuel's second career playoff interception return for a touchdown, becoming the ninth player in NFL history - and the only Patriot - to return two or more interceptions for a touchdown in his playoff career. Samuel's interception marked his third straight playoff game with an interception and also was his third career postseason interception. Last season, he intercepted a pass in the first round against Jacksonville and also picked one off in the divisional playoffs against Denver. This game was Samuel's second consecutive home playoff game with an interception return for a touchdown, having returned a pick 73 yards for a score in last season's 28-3 first-round playoff victory over Jacksonville. During the 2006 regular season, Samuel tied Denver's Champ Bailey for the NFL lead in interceptions (10), becoming just the second Patriot in team history to intercept 10 or more passes in a season (Ron Hall, 11, 1964).
Home is where the heart is
With Sunday's 37-16 victory over the Jets, the Patriots have now won nine consecutive playoff games and have not lost at home in the playoffs since Dec. 31, 1978. New England's streak of nine straight playoff wins is tied for the second longest such streak in NFL history, equaling the Buffalo Bills nine consecutive home playoff wins from 1988-95. New England improved to 9-1 (.900) all-time at home in the playoffs, adding to the best home playoff record in NFL history among teams that have played at least three home playoff games. Nine of the franchise's 10 home playoff games have taken place since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994. New England is 9-0 at home in the playoffs over that span.
Pat's playoff record improves to No. 2
The Patriots improved to 18-11 (.621) all-time in the playoffs, passing the Pittsburgh Steelers to claim the second best playoff record among teams that have played in at least 10 postseason games. Of the team's 18 playoff wins, 14 have come since Robert Kraft purchased the club in 1994. Over that span, the Patriots lead the NFL in total victories (143), winning percentage (.630), Super Bowl championships (3), conference championships (4), playoff wins (14) and playoff winning percentage (.737). New England is also tied for the NFL lead since 1994 with nine playoff seasons and 19 playoff games played.