- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was holding the shiny, silver Lamar Hunt Trophy in his left arm, still reveling in the excitement of his team's 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, when he was asked a question about defensive lineman Vince Wilfork.
It naturally brought a smile to Kraft's face because it was days like these, and magical seasons like this one, that led Kraft to once point to Wilfork as the type of player the franchise needed to build around.
This goes back to the days and months following a disappointing 2009 campaign. You remember the year, the one that ended with an embarrassing home playoff loss to the Ravens. All the talk was about a fractured locker room, too many players pulling in different directions. Building better chemistry was a top priority, and Kraft said it was going to start with players like Wilfork, so the team signed him to a lucrative long-term contract extension.
It helped, of course, that Wilfork was a top-tier player at a hard-to-fill position. But it was more than that.
Wilfork would not only be positioned to serve as one of the team's leaders, helping to transition from the glory years of Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison and Co., but he'd also be the centerpiece the defense could rely on in critical moments to deliver the big play.
Wilfork has done that over the last two years, and had been a solid contributor since the team selected him in the first round of the 2004 draft, but his finest moment came in Sunday's thrilling triumph.
The conservatively-listed 325-pound bowling ball of force was immense, his performance highlighting a defensive uprising that helped bail out a Patriots offense that wasn't as explosive as we're come to expect.
"Vince Wilfork is a man," Kraft said after Wilfork's six-tackle performance that included a sack and three tackles for losses. "The kind of leader he is, we're so lucky to have him on this team."
The defining Wilfork moment came with just more than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Patriots leading 23-20, and the Ravens with the ball on the New England 30.
At that point, he took over the game, blowing up both the third- and fourth-down plays, first dropping running back Ray Rice for a 3-yard loss (Wilfork said he was surprised to not be blocked), then powering through center Matt Birk before reaching out to grab Flacco's jersey to force a fourth-down incompletion (he credited a sideline adjustment in which the Patriots altered their alignment up front).
There were days when Wilfork was mostly a first- and second-down run-stopper, but those two plays highlighted how that time is decisively over. Wilfork is a rock in the middle. He also can be an explosive pass-rusher, his playing time spiking from around 60 percent in 2010 to nearly 90 percent this year because he's staying on the field in passing situations.
"Awesome. Just awesome. It's almost hard to not find yourself watching," fellow veteran defensive lineman Gerard Warren marveled. "That's why I believe he's the most impressive D-lineman in the game."
During a season in which the Patriots' defense has been much maligned, Wilfork represents its heartbeat. He never budged, never wavered. All along, he insisted this unit had what it takes to play championship football, even as opponents were sometimes carving them up with ease.
Teammates consistently took a cue from Wilfork's resolve, such as in Sunday's AFC Championship when he played through a left arm injury that had him retreating to the sideline in the second quarter. It kept him out just one play, a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta.
"I knew he was going to come out and have the game he had," said second-year linebacker Brandon Spikes, who contributed a fourth-quarter interception. "Throughout the week, he made sure we were together as a unit, with all the smaller things, taking care of business. We follow him. He's a great leader, sort of like a coach to me, helping me with smaller details that I never, ever pay attention to. He was big."
He was, and so was the Patriots' defense as a whole. If not for cornerback Sterling Moore reaching his hand in to bat away a would-be Lee Evans touchdown reception with 22 seconds left, we might be telling a different story.
Instead, the defense was lauded by quarterback Tom Brady. Interviewed by CBS' Jim Nantz after the game, Brady said, "I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us."
Based on what we saw over the course of the regular season, who would have ever predicted that turn of events?
On Sunday, the D held dangerous running back Ray Rice to 67 yards on 21 carries. When the Ravens passed, the plan was to move quarterback Joe Flacco out of the pocket as much as possible, and the results were mixed. Flacco was solid (22-of-36 for 306 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), but the Patriots' defense had the last laugh.
It's a defense with a rising confidence, one that looks similar to the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, a team that received a major boost with the return of injured safety Bob Sanders for the playoffs that season. They might not be at the same level of Sanders, but Spikes and safety Patrick Chung, who both missed seven of the final eight regular-season games, have had a Sanders-type impact.
"I'm very proud," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, the unit's other captain. "Just getting guys back healthy has been a major contribution -- getting Spikes, getting Chung back -- [and] just the consistency up front."
Both Spikes and Chung bring a noticeable edge to the D, which was also reflected in how Spikes responded to criticism the unit received over the course of the season.
"Talk is cheap. You can say whatever. You have to play the game at the end of the day and defense wins championships," he said. "Look at the outcome [Sunday]. That's all I have to say about that."
It spoke volumes.
"Watching the defense has been great, how it's evolved," Kraft said. "I go back to '96 when we went to our first Super Bowl, really the defense played a big role in helping us. We know our defense has really improved a great deal. I think having Brandon and Patrick back made a great difference."
It has, but don't forget the old standby. When it comes to the Patriots' defense, it starts with Wilfork.
"Just to see all the excitement from all the guys -- the fans, the players, the coaches, guys that have never been in this situation -- it brings back memories," Wilfork said.
"You're going to the Super Bowl; everybody plays this game for this moment," Wilfork said. "It's been tough. We had to deal with certain situations, but you know, this team handled it pretty well. They never gave up. They're very, very passionate about what they do, they love this game, and I can take the field with anybody like that."
They'll do it one more time, in Super Bowl XLVI.
Wilfork, of course, will be leading the way.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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