The Label Game

Divisional Saturday

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Patriot Games

New England's win over Houston wasn't magical. But it was exactly what the Pats needed.

Some games exist as their own universes. Regardless of whether they mean a championship, or are another step along the road to a championship, or even merely another step toward a playoff position that is a step along the road to a game that can mean a championship, they are played so well, and competed so fiercely, that they exist out of the prefab context of a season, or even that of a postseason. The game between Denver and Baltimore on Saturday was a game like that. So was the game Sunday between Seattle and Atlanta. The teams that won those games earned something ineffable simply by coming out of them as the victors. The game Sunday between New England and Houston was not one of those games. This was a game that you win so that you can play next week. This was a game that the Patriots won so they could host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game this coming Sunday.

Their reward for scoring more than 40 points on the Houston defense for the second time in a little more than a month — this time, winning 41-28 — is that they get a chance to see what they can do with a Baltimore defense that has been notoriously unimpressed by the power of the New England offense for going on five years now. Tom Brady’s reward for a 25-for-40, three-touchdown evening in which he topped Joe Montana for playoff wins in a career is merely to face off for an entire week against the relentless hype of the ongoing Ray Lewis–Don’t-Mention-The-Inconveniently-Dead-Guys Farewell Tour Of The Americas. Stevan Ridley’s reward for his nifty 82 yards rushing is merely that he gets to lower his head into Haloti Ngata about 11 times next week. Shane Vereen’s reward for his three touchdowns — one of them on a down-the-sideline throw by Brady that may be the best pass thrown by anyone ever — is merely to try to grind out first downs while looking to see if Ed Reed is launching himself at Vereen’s head. This was a sloppy, grinding, dog’s breakfast of a rout, but if you’re going to have a rout to get you ready for the Ravens, then this is the kind of rout you want to have.

“Today was a big win for us,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, fireworks alight behind his merry eyes. “We’ll enjoy this one for a little while and then get on to the Ravens tomorrow.”

If there ever was a day for Belichick’s customarily lugubrious postgame sonata, it was this one. Not that there weren’t some highlights. Brady’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Vereen should be the only clip they need to run when he gets inducted into the Hall of Fame. Houston kick returner Danieal Manning had a day to write back to Corsicana about. He returned four kickoffs for 216 yards, including the game’s first one, which he brought back 94 yards to the New England 12-yard line, only to get hauled down from behind by Devin McCourty, which ultimately turned out to be the very first thing that went wrong for the Texans, since they could only manage to come away from this huge break with a field goal.

“Yeah,” said Belichick, the songs of happy angels echoing behind every word, “it was a huge play.”

But, by and large, the game was a game for workhorses, not show ponies. It was a game for workmen, not necessarily craftsmen, but for craftsmen more than for showmen. And, because it was, there is more than a little cosmic justice that the game turned for good because a New England defensive end named Rob Ninkovich, a workman who has become a craftsman here, did what he was supposed to do and made a play that blunted a putative Houston comeback and gave New England all it would need of what passed for momentum on this warm and foggy night. And, at the end, Rob Ninkovich’s coach gave him the credit that he deserved.

“Rob has been really productive for us all year. He’s had a great season,” said Bill Belichick, a veritable exaltation of trumpets seeming to resound in the air around him. “His production is right up there at the very top of the league at his position. We know he’s got good hands. He’s had many interceptions before; made a great play there.”

There is drinking the Flavor Aid and then there is guzzling it by the keg. Rob Ninkovich, cast off by Miami and by New Orleans before coming to New England, where he has prospered, is not going to make any mistakes now. He will drink it dry all the way down to the barrel staves.

“C’mon, guys,” he said, laughing. “I said I wasn’t going to get into the details about the play. What’s going on here?”

The available evidence, of course, had been out there for hours, CBS having replayed the play in question about half a dozen times, and, in slow motion, you can see the design of the play come alive. There were four minutes and 20 seconds left in the third quarter. New England had a 24-13 lead, but Houston was beginning to move. Matt Schaub had found Andre Johnson deep down the middle of the field for 22 yards, saving a third-and-16 situation, and the Texans had driven to the New England 37-yard line. The game’s momentum clearly had swung in Houston’s direction at the end of the first half, and now it was completely up for grabs.

It was third down and eight yards to go. Calling signals for the New England defense, linebacker Jerod Mayo blitzed from the right edge. Ninkovich took one step toward the backfield and then dropped into coverage, near to where Houston tight end James Casey had come loose in the middle of the field. Schaub never saw Ninkovich, and tried to loft the ball to Casey. Ninkovich went up and intercepted the ball. “I don’t think I was up that high, was I? I never had much of a vertical,” he joked later. “I think the last time they tested my vertical was at the Combine, and I don’t even remember what it was.” The play worked exactly as it had been designed, and New England took immediate advantage. Six plays later, Brady found Brandon Lloyd for a five-yard touchdown, and Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point was good, and the Patriots led, 31-13, and they had what was the very living definition of a working margin.

Everybody agreed that it had been the critical play of the game — Schaub himself said that he had the look he wanted, but that he hadn’t thrown the ball well enough — and everyone agreed that the play had worked because of the endless hours of practice and film study, something out of which Ninkovich has made a name for himself, even on a team that prides itself on its off-field course work. “He makes play after play because he puts the time in and he puts the work in,” said New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork. “We see a lot of plays being made in practice, so we expect it in the games.” The one thing nobody, and especially not Ninkovich, was going to say was how it worked, because, my dear young folks, in New England, that simply is not done.

“I’m gonna keep that between us,” he said. “Just good execution on the play. Me, just coming inside, reading the quarterback, dropping into coverage. So, just a good play overall. It’s just, Mayo made a good call for telling me to do that. It was kind of like something that was on or off, but it worked well, so I’m happy it worked out for us.

“It was great timing. We had them backed up, and then they ran a great little swing pass to [Arian] Foster to get them out of harm’s way, so that was a tough play for us. They were driving a little bit. I was happy to make that play so our offense could get back out there and score.” In fact, it had been Ninkovich who’d hauled down Foster on that swing pass, or the 28-yard gain might have been a much longer one.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I hauled down [Chicago's Devin] Hester one time, but I think he cut back on me, so that helped me out a little bit.”

Ninkovich came into the game after spending a week resting the hip muscles he’d strained against Miami in the last regular-season game of the year, an injury that, of course, he has no intention of discussing in public. (He kicked off a midweek press conference by answering the first question, which was about his injury, “I’m not going to get into it.”) I swear, sometimes covering the Patriots is like writing a novel about one of those faded Gothic Southern families that has Uncle Derwin’s corpse down in the basement, where the whole clan gathers every day at five to drink high tea with the deceased. This is the house of the unspoken, but Ninkovich did allow that he’d been happy to have had the time to heal up before playing the Texans.

“I’m doing everything to be back as fast as possible,” he said. “Do whatever it takes to get healthy. It helps to have that extra week of rest to let the body heal. It can only heal so fast. That week really helped me out. I feel blessed to be able to be on the field. I don’t really want to get into the injury, but I was happy that it wasn’t anything that could affect me being on the football field.

“I’ve been in that situation a bunch in my career. I’ve had a couple of knee injuries that, when they happen, it could be your career. I was a little bit better taking it this time. You know, saying, ‘Calm down, don’t get too upset. You don’t know what it is yet.'”

If Sunday’s game was the perfect game for the New England Norden bombsight approach to the free flow of information, then it also was a perfect game for Ninkovich, whom the team rescued after he’d been released three times, and who found a role as a quick and versatile defensive end with a gift for being around the ball, even after he’s pried it loose himself. (Ninkovich has forced five fumbles this season, including one each at critical moments against Indianapolis and the New York Jets.) On Sunday, in addition to his interception, he made four tackles. “It’s about being in the right place at the right time,” he said, and the same could be said for his entire career. He bounced from the Saints to the Dolphins and back to the Saints again before being released for good in July 2009. He signed with New England almost immediately and never looked back.

“I mean, I guess I’m just blessed, being in the right place, right time. Good calls by the coaches to put me in those situations,” he said. “I’m just happy I’m able to make those plays and help the team.”

This is another thing the Patriots have done since Belichick took over. You can argue with how they draft, but the team has a sniper’s eye for discerning players who have floundered elsewhere, but who will flourish in the Patriots’ scheme of things. A year after he signed, Ninkovich was starting at linebacker and, in his first game as a starter, he intercepted two passes against Miami. When New England drafted Dont’a Hightower this year, Ninkovich swung over to defensive end. The play he made Sunday, the play that locked the game in the Patriots’ favor, was a defensive end making a linebacker’s play. It was a workman making a craftsman’s play. Sometimes, on the odd warm winter’s evening, it’s enough for the work to speak for itself.

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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