EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey -- Rob Ninkovich has said he strives never to be outdone.
But what if he shows himself up?
Ninkovich had five tackles and an assist Sunday night in New England's 37-16 win over the Jets. No, that's not all. The linebacker also snagged two interceptions -- one returned for a touchdown -- on New York's home turf.
He spoke after the game. This time, aloft in a rare podium appearance.
"I haven't seen the first interception on tape yet," he said with a smile, "but I was just dropping back in coverage and I think the receiver missed it, and then Jerod Mayo tipped it and it came my way. So it was just one of those lucky tips, it came right to me. Opportunity came and I caught it."
The Patriots could say the same about Ninkovich.
Since arriving in New England in 2009, his game has taken on new dimensions. Last season he started in 10 of 16 contests, finishing with 62 combined tackles, four sacks, four passes defensed and two interceptions. He can double those totals this year. Ninkovich doesn't come off the bench anymore; from special teamer, to Patriots linebacker, to guaranteed weekly starter, he's carved out an important place in the Patriots defense.
People who've worked with him in the past, like Purdue defensive coach Mark Hagen, aren't surprised by the linebacker's contributions. Ive been in college football for 15 years and I can probably only put one other guy in his category in terms of how hard he works and how hard he plays," Hagen once reflected.
The work ethic has translated well to the NFL. Patriots coach Bill Belichick praised Sunday's effort but without a hint of humor. Of course Ninkovich can create heads-up plays, "being the player that he is," said Belichick.
The second interception developed halfway into the fourth quarter. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez took the snap at his own 10. Ninkovich flattened tight end Dustin Keller at the line. Seeing Keller wasn't a threat to get back in the play, Ninkovich floated toward the middle of the field and trained his eyes on New York's signal caller. Sanchez acquired LaDanian Tomlinson as his target. Ninkovich read the route.
The linebacker ran 12 yards for the touchdown. Jets fans ran for the exits.
"There's so much pressure that we put into this week with jamming their receivers, jamming tight ends and being able to take away reads. I think he stepped up big for us," defensive captain Vince Wilfork said. "Just knowing the right situation and he was there. That was his job, he knew where he had to be. That's just playing good situational football."
That's the kind of football Rob Ninkovich plays.