Pats’ Wilfork catches his breath

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FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) – If Vince Wilfork is going to be the star of the New England Patriots’ next playoff game, it will be by stopping the run, not making it.

The Patriots nose tackle lumbered 31 yards on a fumble return that helped New England put the New York Jets away in the first round of the playoffs. In Round 2, though, Wilfork will be back to work clogging up the middle of the field as the Patriots try to stop the San Diego Chargers and NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson.

“He’s the MVP. I don’t know how you could be any more complete than that,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “He’s looked pretty good to me, unfortunately, every time we’ve seen him. We’re usually looking at the back of his jersey. We haven’t done very well against him. He’s killed a lot of people besides us, and he’s killed us.”

Tomlinson led the league with 1,815 yards rushing and shattered an NFL record with 31 touchdowns. For the Patriots (13-4) to have a chance at a fourth Super Bowl in six years, they’ll have to stop him; that’s where Wilfork and the rest of the New England defensive line come in.

“The best team in the NFL, hands-down. It’s going to be a tough challenge,” Wilfork said Sunday. “Right now we just have to enjoy this game for a couple more hours and then get started on San Diego.”

Wilfork had much to enjoy in Sunday’s 37-16 win over the Jets when he returned after missing the last three games of the regular season with a sprained right ankle.

“I hated turning on the TV and seeing my team play,” Wilfork said. “I wanted to support them. I just didn’t know how to feel, me being home while the team is out there sweating and getting bloody and I’m home looking at the football game. I was eager to get back.”

Wilfork put his legs to the test Sunday when Chad Pennington’s pass was knocked down by Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. No one else on the field seemed to realize that the pass went backwards, but Wilfork picked up the ball and, after a slight delay, rumbled 31 yards to the Jets’ 15.

A replay review confirmed that the throw was a lateral, and thus a fumble.

“I had to turn on the speed. I didn’t show you guys all of that,” said Wilfork, who was a fullback in high school but had never run with the ball since then.

“I just saw the end zone and said, “Man, that’s a long way! I tried my best, but we had the turnover that gave our offense a short field to work with. We came out of that with points. It would have been lovely if I would have gotten (the score), but at least we got some points out of it.”

Wilfork’s return solidifies a front three that, when healthy, is one of the Patriots strengths.

Richard Seymour is headed for his fifth Pro Bowl at defensive end despite being slowed by elbow and groin injuries that limited his playing time early in the season. The other end, Ty Warren, was chosen NFL defensive player of the month for December; he missed the ninth game of the season with an injury.

The Patriots will need all three if they’re going to slow down Tomlinson and Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers.

“We are definitely going to have our hands full,” Seymour said. “If you look just at their offense, they have a Pro Bowl quarterback and probably the best running back in the game. We have our work cut out for us.”

AP-ES-01-08-07 1513EST

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