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Huge chore to push Pats Wilfork out of the middle

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Try to shove massive Vince Wilfork out of the middle. Tough to do, isn't it?

The 325-pound Pro Bowl tackle keeps sticking around.

Wilfork is the only defensive starter left from the New England Patriots last Super Bowl team four years ago. This season, he's rarely come off the field. And why should he?

He's earned all that playing time by crunching runners, charging quarterbacks and clogging holes that offensive linemen struggle to open.

"He's been huge," coach Bill Belichick said. "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."

Now he has a chance to reach the top in one climactic game.

Wilfork, as usual, will be in the center of the action at the Super Bowl against the New York Giants on Feb. 5.

"I don't care how many Super Bowls you've been to or won. Every chance (you) get to play at this level is the biggest game of your career," he said, but "it's still a football game and they're going to have to line up between the lines and play.

"I think the more we can focus on that end and just block everything else out the better we'll be as a team. But it's no question in my mind, these guys will do that."

The leadership and inspiration Wilfork provides as a captain - with his hard-hitting play as much as his soft voice - pushes teammates to compete despite season-long criticism of their defense that allowed the second most yards in the regular season.

But runners who challenge the heart of that defense encounter Wilfork's wide body.

"He is definitely hard to move," Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said. "He is strong and he is quick for his size. You can't (figure out) one way where he is going to this or he is going to that. He is not one-dimensional. He makes it really hard for people to figure out how they are going to block him."

In the 23-20 win over Baltimore in the AFC championship game, Wilfork had one sack and six tackles, including a stop of Ray Rice for a 3-yard loss that might have pushed the Ravens out of field-goal range with about 3 minutes left.

Wilfork has been primarily a nose tackle since being drafted out of Miami with the 21st pick in 2004. But this season he also lined up at end and tackle in a 4-3 alignment. And he has developed into an every-down player.

"You rarely see a defensive lineman playing 90 percent of the snaps," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "He's one of those guys, I don't want to say his weight on camera, but he's a big guy, you can all see that. That's very impressive in its own right."

So are his imitations of fleet, 180-pound cornerbacks.

Wilfork, athletic and fast despite his size, had the first two interceptions of his career in the first four games this season. He rambled 36 yards with the first to set up a field goal on the last play before halftime of a 35-21 win over San Diego. Two weeks later he grabbed another pass, returning it 19 yards in the fourth quarter of a 31-19 win over Oakland.

"Legendary," Belichick called those picks.

"A lineman's dream," Wilfork said. "Too bad it wasn't a touchdown, but I ended up falling on one in Washington."

Oh, yeah, there was that fumble recovery in the end zone for his first career touchdown in a 34-27 win over the Redskins.

Somehow, Wilfork seems to be in the middle of the action, even when he's not expected to be.

"Sometimes I make plays that are noticeable and sometimes I don't," he said. "I don't get a bunch of sacks. I don't have any sack dance or any dance you can remember me by but, trust me, I do play hard."

Often, Wilfork ends up on the ground in a pile with two offensive linemen. Hardly glamorous, but that's one extra blocker his teammates don't have to worry about.

"He embraces the success of the team," Belichick said. "A lot of times it comes at maybe personal (expense), eating up blockers and doing things, doing some of the dirty work that helps other players be productive. He's done a great job with that, embraced it and performed well in whatever role we've asked him to be in."

But it's tough to hide such a big body, no matter how many blockers try to flatten him. So for the third straight season and fourth time in his career, Wilfork got enough notice to be chosen for the Pro Bowl.

Of course, he'll skip that game this Sunday to fly to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl.

The Patriots won it in his rookie season then came agonizingly close to doing it again and completing a perfect 2007 season. But Eli Manning threw a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left and the Giants won 17-14.

"That's a tough, tough feeling," Wilfork said, "but every chance you get to be in this situation is special."

There was another postseason moment he wishes never happened.

On the first offensive play of a wild-card playoff game two years ago, Wilfork was blocked onto his back, opening a gap that Rice dashed through on an 83-yard touchdown run. That set the tone for a 33-14 Ravens upset win.

Wilfork said he and his defensive teammates haven't watched that play since.

"It doesn't have any relevance to what we're doing," he said. "That was a couple of years ago and this is a new ball club."

But Wilfork is still the man in the middle.

"He's really the elder statesman on the defense," Belichick said. "He's got a great work ethic, very unselfish, does whatever we've asked him to do."

No one had to tell him what to do last Sunday when Billy Cundiff hooked a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds left. That ended the Ravens last chance and sent the Patriots to the biggest game of all.

Moments after the miss, Wilfork stretched his arms to the sides with his helmet in his right hand and beamed a satisfied smile, his breath visible in the chill of the evening.

"It is an unbelievable feeling," he said. "It's hard to describe, but when you play this game this is what you play for."

AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., contributed to this report.

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