FOXBORO â€” Vince Wilfork was having a playful conversation with Pepper Johnson a couple weeks ago when a most unlikely topic arose.
â€śMan, I might end my career without an interception,â€ť Wilfork told his defensive line coach.
Wilfork then asked a fellow defensive lineman if heâ€™d ever reeled in a pick.
â€śNope, never had one,â€ť the teammate replied.
Well, in addition to the Patriotsâ€™ 35-21 victory over the Chargers at Gillette Stadium, Wilfork had extra cause to celebrate on Sunday.
When it comes to that first NFL interception, heâ€™s officially off the schneid.
The 325-pound tackleâ€™s pick came late in the final minute of the second half, with quarterback Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense looking to cut into New Englandâ€™s 17-7 advantage before halftime.
On the 12th play of the series, with 19 seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Chargers faced a 1st-and-10 from the Patriotsâ€™ 29-yard line. Out of the shotgun, Rivers threaded a short pass to his right, intended for running back Mike Tolbert.
Wilfork, of all people, met the ball first.
The eight-year veteran jumped the route and batted Riversâ€™ pass into the air with his left hand at the New England 35. He used his right hand to gather the airborne ball before rumbling 36 yards to the San Diego 29.
â€śHe was stumbling and tumbling,â€ť said linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Said Wilfork, â€śI actually tipped it to myself. Iâ€™m just happy I caught it, because if I didnâ€™t catch it Iâ€™m pretty sure my teammates would have got me. As much junk as we talk around here, whoâ€™s better defense or offense, who can play what position, Iâ€™m pretty sure they would have let me have it if I would have dropped that ball. Now I can talk smack to them.â€ť
No matter. Wilforkâ€™s teammates gave him some good-natured ribbing anyway.
â€śIt was a magnificent feat of athleticism,â€ť said left tackle Matt Light. â€śYou saw Vinceâ€™s speed. Heâ€™s a real threat out there.â€ť
â€śThat was legit,â€ť added a laughing tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught two touchdown passes in the win.
Did Wilfork think he could roll all the way to the end zone?
â€śYeah,â€ť he said with confidence. â€śAnytime you get your hands on the ball, you always think about scoring as a defensive player. A lot of times you donâ€™t get a chance to touch the ball, so you never know, you never know. Itâ€™s just one of those things.â€ť
He insists he wasnâ€™t gassed afterward, either.
â€śNo. Iâ€™m a well-conditioned athlete,â€ť Wilfork said. â€śI was good.â€ť
To the surprise of no one, Rivers â€“ never one to hide his emotions â€“ wore a look of utter disbelief after the play.
Wilfork wasnâ€™t so shocked.
â€śWe play a lot of situational football around here,â€ť he said. â€śIn that situation, with two minutes [remaining], you kind of know what they were trying to do. I wasnâ€™t saying I was right, but I saw the running back take out, so I was thinking screen. From the look I got from afar and just anticipating, I was anticipating it could be a screen.
â€śI made a play. [Coach] Bill [Belichick] always says if you take a chance, you better make it. I guess I made it tonight.â€ť
Most important, Wilforkâ€™s interception â€“ one of four turnovers forced by the Patriots on Sunday â€“ helped set up Stephen Gostkowskiâ€™s 47-yard field goal with one second left in the second quarter, pushing the Patsâ€™ lead to 20-7 at the half.
â€śTonight we played a great complementary football game,â€ť Wilfork said.
And in the ongoing battle of trash talk between the Patriotsâ€™ offensive and defensive players, the latter apparently have a leg up.
â€śWe always talk smack about whoâ€™s the better athlete,â€ť Wilfork said. â€śI think Iâ€™d put defense ahead of offense right now. We have athletes on defense also.â€ť