, Salem, MA

February 2, 2012

Hungry man

Wilfork leading Patriots defensive revival

Hector Longo
Staff writer

FOXBOROUGH - A big, strapping 6-foot-6, 232-pounder, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was no match for "The Paw."

Engaged with a blocker already and not to be denied, Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork extended said paw, latched on to Flacco by the breast plate and yanked him to the Gillette Stadium turf for the latest defining Wilfork moment - making it 2.5 sacks in two playoff games.

"I'm around him all the time, and I don't even know how to explain him," said linebacker Jerod Mayo. "There's a hunger for the game, a hunger to win, it's just unmatched."

Hunger issues aside, Mayo wasn't about to broach the topic of Wilfork's girth. Wilfork, at 30, has performed in these two playoff games like the rookie he was in 2004, forcing his way into the lineup spot with the greatest Patriots defense of all time.

Clearly, this is a case of Wilfork leading by example. And the rest of the defense seems to be following suit.

"He has a ring, and no one else on this defense has a ring," said Mayo. "He's expressed to all of us the joy you get, winning the championship game. You know, he's not a liar."

Wilfork, content with a contract that delivered $18 million guaranteed remains desperate on the gridiron.

History and Bill Belichick have taught him it's the only way to compete at this high level.

"Going to the University of Miami my first year and winning a National Championship, and then the next year going and losing to Ohio State and losing, and first year in the pros winning Super Bowl," said Wilfork.

"A couple years went by, and I saw how hard it was to get to this level. And in '07, of course, going and losing is a tough, tough feeling."

The defensive cornerstone of the franchise, Wilfork's belief in this team and this defense hasn't wavered through some extremely tough times.

Injuries stretched this defense wafer thin and bodies rotated around him regularly. And you're talking about a defense that had been ranked 32nd and last in yardage against every week of the season until the final one, in which they bumped up to 31st.

"Through the course of the year you go through so many ups and downs and positives and negatives and injuries, you name it. Teams go through everything and you rarely see a team that doesn't go through nothing and gets to the Super Bowl and all of a sudden wins," said Wilfork. "We've come a long ways and a lot of doubters saying that we can't get here, we can't do this but these guys never gave up. They kept fighting and each week they got better and better and better and better, and now we find ourselves playing in the Super Bowl, so one more game to go."

At times this year, Wilfork looked to be struggling like his defense. And while it clearly looks like he has cranked it up lately, he says that is nonsense.

"I play hard every week. Sometimes I make plays that are noticeable and sometimes I don't. Last week was just one of those things where the plays I made were pretty good plays but you have to turn the chapter," he said. "We have to turn the chapter; I can't dwell over last week or that performance because I have another football game to play. I understand that. I'm up for the challenge. I always want to give my all because I expect the same thing from my coaches and my teammates, and I hope they expect the same thing from me. I always play hard."

Wilfork's words rang out as a simple message to Eli Manning, three words to follow in preparation for the Patriots.

"Beware, The Paw."