Ninkovich steps up and forces game-winning fumble

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Ninkovich steps up and forces game-winning fumble

FOXBORO - Somebody needed to step up and make a game-winning play. For the Patriots defense, it failed to make that big play last Sunday in Seattle, when the game was on the line.

One week later, New England found themselves in a similar situation. Only this time it was at home, and it was against the New York Jets.

And with 7:30 left in overtime, linebacker Rob Ninkovich stepped up and made the type of game-winning play that wasn't made last Sunday.

Ninkovich's forced fumble and eventual fumble recovery ended Sunday's game with a Patriots victory. It came after Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 48-yard field goal to give New England a 29-26 lead.

With the new overtime rules, the Jets then had an opportunity to drive down the field and either tie the score with a field goal of their own, or end the game with a touchdown.

Ninkovich's hit on Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez ended any hope of either of those scenarios playing out, and gave the Patriots a 29-26 win.

"Just finish," said Ninkovich afterwards. "I think it's been tough the last couple of games that we lost, having the lead and then they come back and we lose at the end of the game. It's just a terrible feeling. So, this game, the whole time I'm thinking, 'Hey, this can't happen again. We've just got to go fight for all four quarters.'

"We held them to a field goal at the end, and in overtime, we said, 'Hey, it's overtime. We know that we're going to get a chance. So let's go out there and finish this game.'"

On 2nd-and-10 from the Jets 40, Ninkovich came rushing from the left side. By the time he got through, Sanchez was already losing his balance, as Jermaine Cunningham had the Jets quarterback by the leg. As Sanchez went to throw the ball, Ninkovich stormed in and connected with a big hit and knocked the football loose.

"It was just an edge rush," said Ninkovich. "Jermaine Cunningham did a great job of getting inside on the guard. So, it shortened that corner for me, and I was able to get around the guy. 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 ball.

"It was a great feeling to have the offense go down, score, kick a field goal, and then have the defense finish it out. It's great for the defense to be able to do that."

Rushing the quarterback was Bill Belichick's focus on that drive. And he reiterated that on the sideline before they took the field one last time.

"Well, Bill Belichick in overtime came to us and said We're going to need the rush. Were going to need the rush. And I think everybody on that defensive line, or whoever was a part of our pass rushing unit, I think we all understood that we had to get after it nonstop," said Vince Wilfork. "I was doubled on that play, but I just tried to keep the wheels turning, just in the back of my mind knowing how important it was to get out and get off the field and try to win this ball game. Because our offense put us in a good spot, going down, kicking the field goal and putting us ahead. We knew if we got a stop, the game would be over. And I think the guys responded well.

"Sometimes you play this game and you want to blow people out, but it's not like that all the time," added Wilfork. "Its like I said, a division game: they know us, we know them, mixing in a few wrinkles, but when the game is on the line, youre going to go to your best stuff, you're going to go to your best players. I think we understood that and the Jets understood that. At the end of the day, we just made a few more plays than those guys."

The Patriots defense did have its fair share of issues once again on Sunday, allowing 328 yards in the air. But Ninkovich's effort in overtime made up for those mistakes, and proved that this Patriots team has the ability to close out games with their defense.

"That's the NFL," said Ninkovich. "You're playing against another good team. Obviously they know us, we know them. They're just hard-fought games. I think that, obviously, there's things that we need to do better. But, coming out with a win, in the division, that's big for us."

"We were kind of preparing to go back out there, and then Rob Ninkovich made a great play," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "Those are the kind of plays you need. If you want to win games, you've got to make plays, and that's a great example of a game-winning play. We've all got to start making more of those."

Mayock: Under-the-radar tight ends, defensive backs could interest Patriots

Mayock: Under-the-radar tight ends, defensive backs could interest Patriots

Until the tidal wave of free-agent moves comes crashing down in March, it's not exactly clear what anyone's needs are in this year's draft. But that won't keep us from guessing with the NFL Scouting Combine taking place this week in Indy.

From a Patriots perspective, they may need a tight end to provide some Rob Gronkowski insurance, especially if Martellus Bennett leaves town for the highest bidder. Defensively, they might be looking at big bodies up front or linebackers. They could also choose to dip into one of the deeper position groups in this year's class -- defensive back -- if they're taking a strict best-player-available approach. 

No matter which spots they're thinking about in this year's draft, the Patriots have a pretty well-defined set of likes and dislikes when it comes to prospect traits. That's what allows someone like NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock -- who held a marathon two-hour conference call with reporters from around the country on Monday -- to make an educated guess on the types of players Bill Belichick will be thinking about in late April. 

At tight end, Mayock thinks Alabama's OJ Howard is a perfect match for New England. He can catch. He can block. He's an athlete. He came up in Nick Saban's program. The only problem is there seems to be very little chance Howard is available at pick No. 32. 

The good news for the Patriots? It's such a deep tight end class, Mayock rattled off a handful of other names who could potentially find themselves in a huddle looking at Tom Brady in 2017. 

"As you drop down and look at the other tight ends after [Howard], there's some really good pass-catching tight ends that would be more like an [Aaron] Hernandez," Mayock said. "You start talking about David Njoku of Miami, he's an absolute freak, and he's also tough enough to learn how to block. Again, I don't know if he gets to the Patriots [at No. 32].

"Evan Engram and Gerald Everett are the two guys that are kind of the move wide receiver tight end. They can play in the slot. Jake Butt had an ACL at Michigan at the end of his season, but he's one of those in-line blockers. Tough guy. Good enough athletically to catch the ball short and intermediate.

"This is a great tight end class. You can get second and third-round tight ends that make a lot of sense. I think down the road a little bit, Michael Roberts from Toledo is a big guy that needs to block better, but he's got some pass catching skills. New England's going to have their choice of a bunch of different tight ends in this draft and get them in the first three rounds."

Defensive back is another area where the Patriots may be able to wait to find an impact player, Mayock suggested. One of the first names that popped into Mayock's mind when it comes to what intrigues Belichick was a safety who played his college ball in the area.

"I think a guy that would have to be interesting to New England is Obi Melifonwu from Connecticut," he said. "Six-foot-4, 219 [pounds], and he's probably going to run sub 4.5 [40-yard dash]. If he runs in that range, I think teams are going to start looking at him as a corner and a safety.

"The reason I think New England, with Matt Patricia, I think they're the best matchup group in the league. Look what they did with Eric Rowe from the Eagles, what they did with [Kyle] Van Noy -- two guys that were kind of cast-offs. They brought them there for matchup reasons. That's what they do. I look at Melifonwu, he looks like a guy that could cover a tight end one week and go out wide and cover a big wideout the next week. I think he'd be interesting.

"[Another] a really good football player that nobody talks about is Lorenzo Jerome of Saint Francis. And what he runs this week is going to be important. But I think he can play both safety positions, and he's really, really a good football player. Like him a lot . . .

"Other names: Des King, who is a corner from Iowa that I think is going to be a nickel or safety, and I think New England always has success moving those guys around a little bit . . . I like Des King; I like Kevin King from Washington who is a corner that can play some free safety; and I like Chidobe Awuzie from Colorado, who (is a corner that) I think might be better off as a safety."

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