Big has never looked more beautiful for the New England Patriots.
Tom Brady and his handsome visage will receive the most pregame media focus heading into Super Bowl XLVI. But it was the play of his rotund teammate that has given New England’s star quarterback the chance for a fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was a monster during the Patriots’ 23-20 AFC Championship Game victory Sunday over the visiting Baltimore Ravens. He spearheaded the run defense with six tackles (three for losses) and added a sack. He made crucial back-to-back plays that helped prevent the Ravens from scoring late in the fourth quarter. And he was key to New England being able to boast about something that rarely happens against Baltimore.
The Patriots were the more physical team.
“He leads the way for us on defense — he and Jerod (Mayo),” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who also praised his middle linebacker during the postgame news conference. “Vince is, obviously, our most experienced player, and he’s been a great leader, great captain all year. His leadership has been tremendous.”
Wilfork’s presence inside the locker room actually dwarfs a 6-foot-2 frame that is generously listed at 325 pounds. (“I don’t want to say his weight on camera, but he’s a big guy,” Mayo said with a smile last week.)
Just like Brady with New England’s offense, Wilfork sets the bar high on his side of the football with an intensity and work ethic that raises the level of everyone around him. Such efforts helped the Patriots weather multiple personnel changes to a defense that was foundering at midseason.
New England also tapped into athleticism and a skill set that — pardon the pun — has made Wilfork one of the NFL’s most well-rounded defensive linemen.
“He embraces the success of the team,” Belichick said. “A lot of times it comes at maybe personal (success), eating up blockers and doing some of the dirty work that helps other players be productive.
“He’s done a lot of different things for us: play end, nose, two-technique, cover screens. He’s done them very well and showed a lot of versatility this year.”
The New York Giants are well aware of the challenges Wilfork will present on Feb. 5 in the Super Bowl. He had four tackles, including one for a loss, and two quarterback hurries during New England’s 24-20 loss to the Giants in Week 9 of the regular season. He notched five tackles against New York when the teams met four years ago in Super Bowl XLII.
If the Giants needed a further reminder of the damage Wilfork can cause, it could be found when reviewing the Ravens game.
Wilfork was especially brilliant with the Patriots trying to keep their three-point lead with three minutes remaining. When the Ravens ran Ray Rice on a draw play on third-and-3 from the Patriots’ 30-yard line, Baltimore made the huge mistake of leaving Wilfork unblocked. He burrowed into the backfield to throw Rice for a 3-yard loss.
Wilfork’s savvy — he is considered the NFL’s best defensive lineman at sniffing out screen passes — paid dividends on that snap.
“Critical plays like that, you just have to take advantage,” Wilfork said. “At that split second, the only thing I saw was did (Rice) have the ball? If it was a setup block, they got me. They didn’t get me.”
That play showcased his smarts; what transpired on fourth down is a prime example of Wilfork’s freakish strength. When the Ravens called a timeout beforehand, New England’s coaches made a sideline adjustment by having Wilfork shift over six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk.
Birk didn’t stand a chance. Wilfork bullied him into the backfield to pressure quarterback Joe Flacco, causing a rushed throw to tight end Dennis Pitta that fell incomplete.
“We knew exactly what we had to do, and I got the matchup I wanted,” Wilfork said.
What the 30-year-old Wilfork wants most now is another Super Bowl ring to adorn his sausage-like fingers. Wilfork was a rookie in the 2004 season when New England last won a title. He also was part of the University of Miami’s 2001 national championship squad as a freshman.
Admittedly spoiled by such early success, Wilfork said it “really didn’t dawn on me” how difficult it is to win a Super Bowl until the Patriots experienced a drought that may now end after seven seasons.
“When I got here as a rookie, I said, ‘I could do this all the time. I’m used to winning. I’m used to playing in the big game. This is easy,’ ” Wilfork said. “Years passed; ’07 came. We lost (to New York). Then you’re like, ‘Whoa! You know, this thing is serious.’ I think about it all the time.
“I hate losing, especially in this game. I’m going to have to do everything I can to help my teammates. I’m pretty sure that it won’t be hard to get that same attitude from these guys.”
Not if Wilfork keeps setting the table for New England’s defense to feast.