Vince Wilfork anchors Pats' defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was just before noon on Wednesday morning when New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork rumbled into the Gillette Stadium media room for a midweek interview. As Wilfork took the podium, his navy hooded sweatshirt billowed out beneath him like the mainsail of a great yacht.

There was no danger of Bill Belichick borrowing this hoodie for Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens, unless he planned on using it as a tent. Belichick had finished his press conference a half hour or so earlier, and the first question asked of Wilfork was related to something his coach had said.

"Bill Belichick earlier this morning referred to your interceptions as legendary, as well as your runbacks," the question went. "What is your response?"

The description was apt -- no Patriots fan can forget the sight of Wilfork careening down the Foxborough sideline like a Winnebago with its brakes cut after his first pick against the San Diego Chargers, nor the utter joy on the big man's face as he hot-stepped away from the Oakland Raiders after his second. Asked again about those merry moments, Wilfork chuckled and answered with just two words:

"Lineman's dream."

Wilfork himself is something of a dream. With his mammoth (and no doubt conservatively listed) 325-pound frame and his startling line-of-scrimmage burst, he's certainly a defensive coordinator's dream, not to mention an opposing coach's nightmare.

And fortunately for the Patriots, Wilfork has put up a dream season, playing an eye-popping 978 snaps (86.2 percent of the team's defensive plays) and totaling a career-high 3.5 regular-season sacks plus another 1.5 last week against the Broncos.

If the Patriots' defense -- a much-maligned, 31st-ranked unit that has been referred to throughout the year variously as a sieve, a screen door and an outfit with all the preventative capabilities of a wet paper towel -- wants to stop Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens, Wilfork figures to lead the charge.

"He's been huge," Belichick said of his veteran leader. "Vince has had a great year for us. He's had obviously a great career, had an outstanding year last year, but this year it's even gone a step higher. He's played a lot of plays. He's become really an every-down player, not just a situational player. He's been very productive for us in the running game, in the passing game, he's made plays in pursuit.

"From a leadership standpoint, again, he's been outstanding. Vince has done a great job of not only leading by example, but also doing the right things, saying the right thing at the right time. Guys that need a little boost, he props them up, and guys that need to be put in their place, he'll do that, too. I think he has a great, great team attitude. He embraces the success of the team."

Wilfork's defensive comrades are similarly complimentary.

"You know, you rarely see defensive linemen playing 90 percent of the snaps on the field, and he's one of those guys," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "I don't want to say his weight on camera, but he's a big guy -- you all can see that. That's very impressive in its own right. And at the same time, he has a ring. He's won playoff games, so we can always draw from his experiences."

"He's been here for a while, through ups and downs, and he's seen it all," added Brandon Spikes, the newly returned Patriots linebacker who sparked the defense against the Broncos with six tackles, a sack and two quarterback knockdowns. "So just to sit down and have a conversation with him, or sit and watch film with [him], is just key for a lot of the younger guys.

"[Wilfork] is kind of like a coach, even though he's on the field."

Though in public Wilfork defers to cocaptain Mayo ("Jerod runs the ship," he said Wednesday), it's the four-time Pro Bowl tackle who truly guides the Patriots' defensive tiller. So it's been difficult for the big man to watch his unit struggle, and struggle it certainly has: At regular season's end, the Patriots' defense ranked 17th against the rush and 31st against the pass. They allowed opponents 1,874 yards on the ground -- an average of 117.1 per game -- and 4,703 in the air, a per-game average of 293.9. In fact, many wonder how in the world this team has made it so far with a defense that has been, by any standard, one of the most heavily criticized units in the NFL.

And yet all year there's been Wilfork, buoying the floundering defense, playing nearly every snap, and spouting confidence all the way.

"I think confidence is everything," Wilfork said. "I think the more confidence you can play with, the better the outcome will be. We get in trouble when we think too much.

"The problems we've had, it's probably been not starting off early enough with the confidence. And I think last week we started off good, but we definitely have to be better this week."

Last week was certainly a good start. The Patriots' defense muzzled the Broncos, who earlier this season had sliced the Patriots for 167 rushing yards in the first quarter alone, by holding Tim Tebow and his quirky read-option attack to just 10 points and 252 total yards, only 136 in the air.

Still, the 2011 Broncos aren't exactly the light-'em-up 2000 Rams, and neither Wilfork nor Mayo are quite ready to say that the Patriots defense has finally turned itself around.

"I think last week won't have anything to do with this week," Wilfork said. "Our goal is to get better."

"It all goes back to consistency," Mayo added. "Just being able to get guys healthy, getting Spikes back out there, getting [safety Patrick] Chung back out there. The DBs are really playing well for us right now. I think we're continuing to improve, and hopefully it continues this week."

The Patriots will have a harder go of it against a Baltimore team that relies heavily on Rice, the 24-year-old, 5-foot-8 dynamo who rushed for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.

"He's a little bit different because he's a smaller, compact guy -- real strong," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "[He's] kind of like a [Maurice] Jones-Drew guy: real strong at hitting the hole and real fast, but can also catch the ball out of the backfield and make some plays in the passing game. He's a target for them that really makes a lot of plays, so you have to make sure that you account for him on the field at all times."

Rice had a team-high 76 catches for 704 yards this season.

Stopping Rice, Belichick said, "just comes down to team defense [and] everybody doing their job. I don't think, obviously, any one person can stop a player of his caliber. It takes great team effort to do that, whether it's running or covering screen passes."

That team effort starts and ends with big No. 75. To watch Wilfork attack an offense is to watch a bowling ball bearing down on a set of pins, his massive frame blasting with astonishing speed toward an offensive line that more often than not crumbles under the strain.

Wilfork somehow is consistently the largest person on a field full of abnormally large people and is remarkably versatile for such a big player, often contributing what Belichick called "dirty work" -- playing not only tackle but also end and two-technique, even at times dropping into pass defense and covering screens.

One could say that over the course of his eight NFL seasons, Wilfork has been the foundation on which the Patriots have built their defense. And at this point in his career, with the Ravens steaming toward Foxborough and the Patriots' season on the line, Wilfork need look no further than the ring finger of his right hand to know what must be done on Sunday.

"We have to play better," he said before gathering up the folds of his giant sweatshirt and heading for practice. "We have to make more plays because each game you play, it gets tougher and tougher, especially when you're dealing with a ballclub [like the] Ravens.

"They've got All-Pros over there. So, it won't get any easier for us. We know we have to slow them down. But I think this defense is capable.

"I have faith that we're going to get to work and we're going to put everything we have in it because right now it's a one-game season. The team that prepares well, that's the team that's going to win this ballgame."

Tom Lakin is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.