Ninkovich outdoes himself

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Ninkovich outdoes himself

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.

Pass picked.

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.

Patriots sign TE Rob Housler to future contract

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Patriots sign TE Rob Housler to future contract

FOXBORO -- The Patriots have signed free-agent tight end Rob Housler to a future contract. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound target last played for the Bears but was released at the end of training camp.

Housler won't be eligible to participate with the Patriots during the postseason, but he will be available for the offseason program and training camp leading up to the 2017 campaign. 

Housler taken in the third round by the Cardinals with the 69th overall selection in 2011. In 65 career games, he has 109 catches for 1,166 yards and one touchdown. 

The Patriots may have been intrigued by Housler's skill set last summer when he caught one pass for 52 yards -- making two Patriots defenders miss in the process -- during a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots and Bears held joint training camp practices in August that would have given Patriots coaches and scouts a closer look at everything Housler has to offer as a player. 

Housler was one of the better athletes at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2011, running a 4.55-second 40-yard dash (fastest among tight ends), posting a 6.9-second three-cone drill, and recording a 37-inch vertical leap.

Bill Belichick and his staff hit big on a future-contract signing two years ago when a running back with a significant injury history was available to scoop up at the behest of then-assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi. Since then, the Patriots still have never lost with Dion Lewis in uniform. 

Edelman, Bennett marvel at Harrison's longevity

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Edelman, Bennett marvel at Harrison's longevity

FOXBORO -- On a daily basis, Patriots players are in the presence of perhaps the best late-30s player to ever lace up cleats. That's why it's noteworthy when those who inhabit the same locker room as Tom Brady marvel at another player playing at a high level despite being one of the oldest in the league. 

That's exactly the case with Steelers linebacker James Harrison, 38, who is the oldest non-quarterback, non-kicker in the NFL. 

Since the Patriots last saw Harrison, he's become an every-down player for Pittsburgh's improving defense, missing just nine total defensive snaps for the Steelers since Week 14. He's saved his best football for the postseason -- three sacks, two quarterback hits and seven quarterback pressures in the last two weeks, per Pro Football Focus -- and the Patriots have noticed.

Julian Edelman, who wears the same Kent State t-shirt to every Patriots practice, raved about his "fellow Flash."

"He’s an unbelievable stud," Edelman said of Harrison, who went undrafted seven years before Edelman was taken in the seventh round. "The guy has been doing it consistently for a long time.

"I’ve been a huge fan of him before I got in the league, and just to see and kind of have an idea where he came from, it’s unbelievable to show how hard he’s worked to get to where he’s got. He’s a large man that is fast, explosive, and if he’s coming my way, it’s going to be a 'get down.' "

While Edelman will do his best to avoid the 6-foot, 242-pounder, Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett will likely be asked to block Harrison at some point. The Steelers defense will move Harrison to different spots at times, but he does much of his work on the outside where Bennett will be situated. 

"Harrison is playing well," Bennett said. "He’s almost as old as my pops, and he’s still playing like a beast out there."