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."