Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 10/22/12
Devin McCourty's fumble nearly lost the game for the Patriots on Sunday night, but it was Rob Ninkovich's fumble that instead secured it as a win. After the Patriots kicked a go-ahead field goal at the start of overtime, a battered and bruised Patriots defense took the field to try and close out the victory. The defense answered the call, but it was Ninkovich who ultimately sealed things up. A few plays after stuffing running back Joe McKnight for a two-yard loss, Ninkovich stepped up and made the biggest play of the day for New England. With the Jets driving into Patriots territory, looking for the game-winner in overtime, the defensive pressure was able to force quarterback Mark Sanchez out of the pocket.  That's when Ninkovich and fellow defensive lineman Jermaine Cunningham brought the heat, combining on a strip-sack that would see the ball tumble back to the New York 25-yard line before Ninkovich finally jumped on the opportunity -- literally. "Jermaine Cunningham did a great job of getting inside on the guard, so it kind of shortened that corner for me and I was able to get around the guy," Ninkovich said after the game. "I saw Jermaine on his legs trying to get [Sanchez] down and he tried to throw it, so I just got the ball, knocked him down and picked up the ball.” His 1 1/2 sacks on Sunday now gives him four on the season. That key forced fumble also marks his fourth this year, leaving him one shy of the five Mike Vrabel forced in 2007 -- the most by any Patriots player in more than 20 years. Ninkovich has a propensity for making big plays just as he did against the Jets. That sort of clutch play has him looking more and more like the opportunist the Patriots' defense desperately needs, at least until they solve their secondary issues. Bill Belichick is well aware of Ninkovich's contribution and how important his play has been, especially in such a big game. "Rob does a good job for us. He made a big play on the running play there, came inside and made the hit in the overtime series and obviously the strip," Belichick said. "He's around the ball and always seems to play well against the Jets. He's got a lot of big plays against those guys." Ninkovich had a pair of interceptions during the Patriots' 37-16 win over the Jets last November, even returning one for a touchdown to close out that game as well. This year's big play may have been just a bit more dramatic, but he's not concerned with which one means more as long as he's able to produce in those big moments. "Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games," Ninkovich said after the win. "So I'm just trying to do that." A big play it was. The forced fumble not only finished off a much-needed win for the Patriots but it also propelled them into first place in the AFC East, a position they intend to stay. And Ninkovich's teammates know how important his play will be to achieving that goal. "In my three years here, he's made big plays in almost every game we've been in. And he's been a big reason why we've won them," McCourty said. "I think whether it's intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown, sack-fumble. He just shows how versatile he is at making plays." McCourty's versatility also played a big role in the Patriots win on Sunday. But Ninkovich's flexibility in playing both linebacker and defensive end on the Patriots' defense has been key throughout this season, and it will undoubtedly continue to be important. The strip-sack was just one of the many clutch plays Ninkovich has already made for the Patriots through seven games. Just as he characterized in the locker room after the game, Ninkovich prides himself on making big plays in big situations. And he continues proving that his penchant for heroics is more than just a coincidence. Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.
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