After the Patriots kicked a
go-ahead field goal at the start of overtime, a battered and bruised Patriots
defense took the field to try and close out the victory. The defense answered
the call, but it was Ninkovich who ultimately sealed things up.
A few plays after stuffing
running back Joe McKnight for a two-yard loss, Ninkovich stepped up and made
the biggest play of the day for New England.
With the Jets driving into
Patriots territory, looking for the game-winner in overtime, the defensive
pressure was able to force quarterback Mark Sanchez out of the pocket. That's when Ninkovich and fellow defensive
lineman Jermaine Cunningham brought the heat, combining on a strip-sack that
would see the ball tumble back to the New York 25-yard line before Ninkovich
finally jumped on the opportunity — literally.
"Jermaine Cunningham did
a great job of getting inside on the guard, so it kind of shortened that corner
for me and I was able to get around the guy," Ninkovich said after the
game. "I saw Jermaine on his legs trying to get [Sanchez] down and he
tried to throw it, so I just got the ball, knocked him down and picked up the
His 1 1/2 sacks on Sunday now
gives him four on the season. That key forced fumble also marks his fourth this
year, leaving him one shy of the five Mike Vrabel forced in 2007 — the most by
any Patriots player in more than 20 years.
Ninkovich has a propensity
for making big plays just as he did against the Jets. That sort of clutch play
has him looking more and more like the opportunist the Patriots' defense
desperately needs, at least until they solve their secondary issues.
Bill Belichick is well aware
of Ninkovich's contribution and how important his play has been, especially in
such a big game.
"Rob does a good job for
us. He made a big play on the running play there, came inside and made the hit
in the overtime series and obviously the strip," Belichick said.
"He's around the ball and always seems to play well against the Jets. He's
got a lot of big plays against those guys."
Ninkovich had a pair of
interceptions during the Patriots' 37-16 win over the Jets last November, even
returning one for a touchdown to close out that game as well. This year's big
play may have been just a bit more dramatic, but he's not concerned with which
one means more as long as he's able to produce in those big moments.
"Big-time players make
big-time plays in big-time games," Ninkovich said after the win. "So
I'm just trying to do that."
A big play it was. The forced
fumble not only finished off a much-needed win for the Patriots but it also
propelled them into first place in the AFC East, a position they intend to
stay. And Ninkovich's teammates know how important his play will be to
achieving that goal.
"In my three years here,
he's made big plays in almost every game we've been in. And he's been a big
reason why we've won them," McCourty said. "I think whether it's
intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown, sack-fumble. He just
shows how versatile he is at making plays."
McCourty's versatility also
played a big role in the Patriots win on Sunday. But Ninkovich's
flexibility in playing both linebacker and defensive end on the Patriots'
defense has been key throughout this season, and it will undoubtedly continue
to be important.
The strip-sack was just one
of the many clutch plays Ninkovich has already made for the Patriots through
seven games. Just as he characterized in the locker room after the game,
Ninkovich prides himself on making big plays in big situations. And he
continues proving that his penchant for heroics is more than just a coincidence.