FOXBOROUGH — Sunday was a great day for Rob Ninkovich even before he stepped onto the Gillette Stadium field with his Patriots teammates.
He would put together what’s become a fairly typical Ninkovich performance: five tackles, including a half-sack on Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman in the Patriots’ 23-3 win.
It’s that kind of consistency that reportedly has earned Ninkovich a three-year contract extension from the Patriots. According to a pregame Twitter message sent out by his agent, Craig Domann, Ninkovich will receive more than $15 million in the deal, with $8.5 million guaranteed. The extension will keep him with the team through the 2016 season.
Uncharacteristically, Ninkovich was not spotted in the locker room following the game when it was opened to the media.
Ninkovich has turned himself into one of the unsung stars on the Patriots. Signed as a free agent in 2009 after being released by the Saints and Dolphins (he was a little-used linebacker), Ninkovich has amassed 20 career sacks, all with the Patriots. He’s switched positions, moving from linebacker to defensive end, but continues to contribute. He’s also been durable, missing just one game since joining the team.
He was under contract for 2013, but was set to become a free agent after the season. That won’t be happening now.
The Patriots made it official 90 minutes before kickoff, putting tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola on the seven-player inactive list. Both practiced this week, although in a limited capacity, and neither was expected to play. Amendola was listed as doubtful with a groin injury, and Gronkowski was questionable, an upgrade from the season’s first two games, when he was doubtful while recovering from offseason back and forearm surgeries.
Matthew Slater had been ruled out on Friday with a wrist injury. The other four inactives were running back Leon Washington, offensive lineman Will Svitek, defensive tackle Chris Jones, and linebacker Steve Beauharnais. Svitek had been listed with a knee injury, and Washington a thigh injury. Jones and Beauharnais were healthy scratches.
Those decisions put tight end Zach Sudfeld back on the field after he missed the Jets game with a hamstring injury, suffered in the season opener at Buffalo. Running back Brandon Bolden (knee) made his season debut, as did defensive back Nate Ebner (ankle).
A call for aid?
Tom Brady had his best game of the season, at least according to the quarterback rating. After a pair of subpar rating games (76.4 against the Bills, 71.0 against the Jets), Brady earned a 92.9 after completing 25 of 36 for 225 yards and two touchdowns, both to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins. He threw an interception in the end zone and was sacked three times, but there seemed to be improvement with his young receiving corps.
There was a pregame report on the NFL Network, however, that Brady has reached out to former Patriots receivers — specifically Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd — to gauge their interest in possibly returning to the team.
Brady said that wasn’t the case.
“No, I haven’t talked to those guys in a while,” said Brady, whose first scoring pass to Thompkins gave him a touchdown pass in 51 straight games, second in NFL history to the 54 by Drew Brees. “I love those guys. They’re good friends and great teammates, but I haven’t talked to either of them in a while.”
A second-quarter interception by Aqib Talib — his third in two games — set up a 53-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski on the final play of the half, giving the Patriots a 17-3 lead. The kick was Gostkowski’s eighth career field goal of at least 50 yards, matching Adam Vinatieri for the franchise record. It also tied Gostkowski’s career-long, done twice before.
“It’s nice to get those long opportunities, we don’t get too many of them,” Gostkowski said. “You need to take advantage of them while the weather’s warm. That kick in December is probably a lot tougher than it was today.”
Perhaps more importantly, Gostkowski’s leg guaranteed that the Buccaneers would start every drive after a Patriots kickoff at the 20-yard line. All five of his kickoffs went for touchbacks, which has been the rule, not the exception: 14 of Gostkowski’s 15 kickoffs haven’t been returned.
“I know how much our guys appreciate it and how much our coaches appreciate it. It’s a play they can’t do anything about if I can kick it over their head and they can’t return it,” Gostkowski said. “I’ve always prided myself on kickoffs. It’s 50 percent of my job, and I take just as much pride in it as I do kicking field goals.”
Gronkowski wasn’t out there, but the Patriots received some pass-catching production from the tight end position. Michael Hoomanawanui, who came in with one reception on the season, doubled that Sunday, catching two balls for 31 yards. They came on the same drive, midway through the third quarter. A 15-yard gain on the first play gave the Patriots a first down. His 16-yarder wasn’t enough for a first down (because the Patriots faced third and 19 from the Tampa Bay 44-yard line), but his catch-and-run, in which he broke a tackle and tight-roped along the sideline, put the offense in field-goal range. Gostkowski drilled a 46-yard field goal, pushing the Patriots lead to 20-3. The two other healthy tight ends also played. Sudfeld was targeted twice but had no catches; Matthew Mulligan played mostly on special teams . . . Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer left the game with what the team said was a foot injury, and did not return. He was replaced by Marcus Cannon, who was flagged 5 yards for a false start in the third quarter . . . Julian Edelman extended his lead in the all-time punt return average category. He had two returns for 29 yards, and now is averaging 13.0 yards per return for his career . . . The only Patriots player not to get in the game was backup quarterback Ryan Mallett . . . Bill Belichick needs one more win to tie Chuck Noll for fifth place on the NFL career list. Belichick is 208-109-0; Noll was 209-156-1 with the Steelers . . . A moment of silence was held before the national anthem for the victims of last week’s deadly shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.