FOXBOROUGH - Vince Wilfork is in his eighth NFL season. Yesterday marked the 108th regular-season game of the defensive tackle’s career. He’s accomplished some noteworthy individual feats, having earned three Pro Bowl selections, three second-team All-Pro selections, and the reputation as one of the finest run-stuffers of his era.
But until yesterday, he’d never lived the defensive lineman’s ultimate football dream: Picking off a pass in an NFL game.
“A lot of times, you don’t get the chance to touch the ball,’’ said Wilfork. “That’s the first interception of my career. It’s funny, I was joking to Pep [assistant coach Pepper Johnson] a couple of weeks ago, I might end my career without an interception. I asked another teammate of mine, ‘Do you have one,’ and he said, ‘Nope.’ So you never know.’’
The personal importance of the interception, which came with 19 seconds remaining in the first half, was evident when Wilfork kept the ball in his possession while returning to the sideline, handing it to a team staffer to stash for safekeeping. But it was even more important to the team at that particular moment in the game.
With the Patriots holding a 17-7 lead, the Chargers marched to the New England 29. On first and 10, Philip Rivers took the snap in the shotgun, looked to his right, and darted the ball in the direction of running back Mike Tolbert.
It never reached its intended target. Instead, Rivers was greeted by the sight of Wilfork, who’s listed at 325 pounds (no telling how many toes were on the scale during that weigh-in). Wilfork gracefully slid into the passing lane, tipped the ball, and caught it, lumbering 36 yards to the Chargers 29 before Tolbert caught up with him.
An illegal block in the back call on Devin McCourty at the end of the play pushed the ball back to the Chargers’ 47 with nine seconds left, but that was no problem for Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Consecutive passes to Deion Branch gained 18 yards in eight seconds. With one second left in the half, Stephen Gostkowski booted a 47-yard field goal, giving the Patriots a 20-7 advantage. It was a pivotal swing of as many as 10 points in the Patriots’ 35-21 win.
While interceptions are a scarcity for Wilfork - he said he had one in high school when a quarterback tried to lob the ball over his head, but nothing during his years at the University of Miami - don’t presume it was a fluke. More than anything, it was an instance of Wilfork’s instincts proving correct.
“We play a lot of situational football around here. And in that situation, with less than two minutes [left in the half], I kind of had an idea what they were trying to do,’’ Wilfork said. “I saw the running back [Tolbert] take off and I was thinking screen. It was from a look I got from the guard, and from just anticipating . . . Bill [Belichick] always says, ‘You take a chance, you’d better make the play.’ ’’
Belichick had high praise for Wilfork’s ability to make such plays.
“Vince is a tremendous athlete,’’ Belichick said. “People don’t realize how good his hands are, but he can throw it, catch it, catch punts. He wanted to return punts after we put him back there when he was a rookie in training camp.’’
While Wilfork lamented that he didn’t take the interception the distance, he said it gives him bragging rights with his teammates who play on the other side of the ball.
“I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t caught it I never would have heard the end of it,’’ said Wilfork. “There’s always talk about who’s the better athletes, defense or offense, who could play what position. So now I can talk smack since I caught it.’’
Naturally, the knowledge that Wilfork’s play was crucial in beating the talented Chargers won’t stop his teammates from giving it right back to him.
“It was a magnificent feat of athleticism,’’ left tackle Matt Light said. “You saw Vince’s speed. He’s a real threat out there.’’
Added defensive end Andre Carter, who is still awaiting his first interception in his 11th season: “The run was ugly, the pick was great. I know he was trying to high-step, but I think those hips were a little tight. It looked good, though. We’re proud of him.’’Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.