Back when he was just a brash rookie in 2004, already sporting a national championship ring from his days as a standout at the University of Miami, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork went to Super Bowl XXXIX and added to his hardware collection with an NFL championship-game bauble.
Nearly eight years later, Wilfork is still waiting for another ring.
But he took a big step forward toward getting one here Sunday, and helped the New England Patriots into an opportunity for a fourth title under coach Bill Belichick and a berth in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, with a superb performance in a 23-20 victory over the gritty Baltimore Ravens.
The game will be remembered, of course, for the 32-yard field goal try by Ravens' kicker Billy Cundiff that sailed wide left with 11 seconds remaining. But the lasting memory for many of the New England defenders, who had been considerably maligned during a regular season in which the unit statistically finished 31st in the league, will be the play and the leadership of their eight-year veteran defensive lineman.
"People don't understand how good he is, even with all the Pro Bowl games (four) that he has been to, all the stuff he's done," said fellow tackle Gerard Warren. "I don't know if there is a more fundamentally sound, technique-(oriented), passionate (defensive) lineman in the league. The guy stands up in big games. He's more of a leader in the locker room than anyone realizes. He wants to win so badly."
Against the Ravens on Sunday afternoon, Wilfork recorded six tackles, and led an effort that limited Baltimore star tailback Ray Rice to 67 yards on 21 carries. He had three tackles for losses, and sack, and a New England assistant told The Sports Xchange that he credited Wilfork with three quarterback hurries, although the league game statistics gave him only one. That one came when he pressed Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco with a surprisingly quick outside move, forced him to pull the ball down, and chased him into the arms of end Mark Anderson.
Even some of the Baltimore blockers acknowledged that Wilfork dominated the line of scrimmage.
Said Pro Bowl yard Marshal Yanda: "He was an absolute monster."
The Patriots alternated their defensive fronts throughout the game -- going from the old Belichick hallmark 3-4, to a 4-3, and even a two-man front at times -- in an effort to corral a Baltimore running game that had gashed them for 253 yards in a first-round playoff defeat here in 2009. Rice, who began that game by blasting 83 yards for a touchdown on the initial play from scrimmage in the contest, rushed for 159 yards that day. In his three games against the New England defense, Rice had run for 350 yards and two touchdowns on 61 carries.
He'd had 100 yards or more in two of the three games and had averaged 5.7 yards per attempt.
On Sunday, however, his longest run was for 12 yards and the Patriots held him to two yards or fewer on 11 of his 21 attempts. Much of that was attributable to Wilfork, since the Ravens rarely committed a safety to the run and depended much of the time on their front seven to keep Rice in check.
It was a matter of winning individual matchups, more than schematically fooling the Ravens, and the Pats out-hit more than out-schemed their opponents. And Wilfork certainly won more than his share of the one-on-one battles.
"We just kept changing up," said Wilfork, who lined up at both tackle and end, depending on the Pats' alignment, but who seemingly manhandled whatever Ravens' lineman from whom he was across. "We didn't want to give (Rice) the same look too many times."
Baltimore gained 398 yards, more than the usually surgical Patriots (330 yards), but the New England defense stepped up with critical stops. In the Baltimore locker room, there was plenty of discussion about whether wide receiver Lee Evans had held a pass in the end zone long enough for a touchdown, just two plays before the botched Cundiff field goal attempt. Replays showed that Evans did not have control of a pass that looked initially as if he dropped it, but which was batted away by New England cornerback Sterling Moore.
No one disputed, though, that Wilfork was a presence throughout. And there was no argument from the Patriots about who their leader was most of the day.
"He wasn't about to be denied," said linebacker Brandon Spikes, who killed off one Baltimore drive with an interception. "He kind of willed it for us."
Essentially, the Patriots and Belichick, a coach who routinely attempts to take away the opponent's top threat, dared Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco to beat them.
And Flacco, frequently criticized in Baltimore for his failure to take the Ravens to a Super Bowl, played gamely, completing 22 of 36 passes for 306 yards, and a passer rating of 95.4. But without Rice to control the tempo, and with Wilfork in his face from the inside much of the day, he was at a handicap. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, whose future with the Ravens is dubious, and whose battles with Flacco are pretty commonly known around the league, called more than his share of bootleg-action plays. But the success of the strategy had just mixed results.
"Their game," Wilfork said, "is coming straight at you. And I thought we did a good job of keeping them from consistently doing that. We were sound in our concept and our execution. And we stayed at home."
Because of that, Wilfork is going to a game he once considered like a home. As a rookie, the 21st overall choice in the '04 draft, Wilfork sort of considered the Super Bowl to be a birthright, a given.
Now, at age 30, not only significantly more mature but also considerably more appreciative of such chances, he sees the Super Bowl as a welcomed opportunity.
"Take nothing for granted," Wilfork said in a quiet and nearly deserted locker room. "I've learned that from the game. Maybe that's why I play so hard and want these games so badly. I hate to lose in any game. But, man, I especially hate to lose in these (championship) games. You cherish these moments."
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.