By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com Staff ReporterFollow @mary_paoletti
OAKLAND -- Vince Wilfork wants you to know something.
"We owned the running game," he said."We definitely handled the running game."
The Patriots tackle took the podium after New England's 31-19 win in Oakland's Black Hole with that statement in mind. Which is funny, because the first thing he was asked about was his fourth-quarter interception.
Yes, he had another one.
And yes, everyone wanted to joke with the 350-pounder about how his two 2011 (and career) picks is the second highest tally on the team. The writers couldn't resist noting how Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty has zero. But Wilfork didn't have much to add.
"I can't remember exactly what I did," he said. "I'll have to go back and watch the play. But one thing with a lot of quarterbacks is, when it comes to the passing game, they want to go deep and then try to come back to security; it's check downs or a cross or whatever it may be. I was just happy to be at the right place at the right time."
There was something else on his mind.
"Most important thing is we got the 'W'," he added."It wouldn't have meant nothing if we didn't get the 'W.' I think it was a good team win. This whole week we challenged each other. Bill Belichick challenged us, we challenged each other. We were very competitive in practice; this was one of the best weeks in practice we had. Not a lot of mental errors in practice. We had a good week of preparation. "
Though he didn't mention Buffalo, it was easy to connect the dots. It was, after all, the defense that bore the brunt of the Patriots' first loss.
The Pats squandered a 21-0 lead last week on the way to a 34-31 Bills win. Wilfork, a defensive captain, skipped discussing it; he bombed out of the locker room before the media could even enter. Postgame analysis noticed this, and quickly sniffed out New England's league-worst total defense: 468.7 yards surrendered on average.
And who sat on the horizon but Darren McFadden and the rush-happy Raiders.
After the Buffalo loss it was deemed inevitable that McFadden, the NFL's leading ground gobbler with 393 yards on 61 carries, would do major damage to New England's leaky 'D'. By whom? Plenty of people, according to Wilfork.
"We went out and played ball," Wilfork said."The plays we did give up against the Raiders were just miscommunications and missed tackles, missed assignments. We gave up two running plays and that was, what, 60-70 yards of the running game. But other than that, I think we owned the running game. I think a lot of people challenged us, basically saying we couldn't stop the running game and all that . . .Well, you take those two plays away, I think we handled them pretty good."
Unfortunately, you can't take plays out of the game log. Belichick saw McFadden rip off a 41-yard gain in the second quarter. One drive later he also caught Jacoby Ford ringing up 30 more on a run that put Oakland on New England's 6.
Butthe defense was good enough.
Eight of Oakland's 11 touchdowns were scored on the ground in Weeks 1 through 3. The Patriots knew they had to take the run away.The Raiders, especially, knew the Patriots would try to take the run away. So they tried to adjust. The season to date, quarterback Jason Campbell had tried just 82 throws and completed passes for 571 yards. On Sunday he had 39 passing attempts for 344 yards passing.
Campbell ended up with one touchdown throw and two picks.
"Every week you have to train and every week it's something different," Wilfork said. "You going from a spread team to a power running team, to a team that do both, to a play action team. This week we knew exactly what we wanted to do. We knew exactly what the Raiders wanted to do; they wanted to run the ball. We were challenged, we were challenged. Defensively, we took it personally.
"And I'm glad. I'm glad it happened today because we came to Oakland who is riding high, won a couple ball games, playing some good football. We were on the road. One of the great traditions in history is to come to Oakland and play the Raiders. We had everything against us. Our backs were against the wall, but you know what? Everyone stayed focused. This team stayed focused, we handled what we needed to handle and we're walking away with a 'W'."
A 'W' with a footnote.
Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo suffered a left MCL injury in the second quarter. Though his season isn't over, Mayo will be sidelined for an extended period -- the last thing this decimated New England defense needs. Linemen Albert Haynesworth and Mike Wright missed another game this week and cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Ras-I Dowling were also unavailable because of injury.
They're not only inconsistent in play but limited in personnel.
Wilfork remains stubbornly optimistic.
"This team is tough. This is a tough, tough, tough bunch. They take coaching well, they take criticisms well and they're hard workers. Anything that they'll put on our plate, they try their best to do. I mean, they work so hard. And you can't ask for anything better than that. No complaining -- people just come to work, they put their hard hat on.
"Whatever it may be that day. Like I said, Bill always challenges us. This week Bill challenged us to just play better football and don't give away games. And we did. We came out, we played well. Going into the fourth quarter we felt very confident with what we were doing. Very confident. I don't care if we were down or up; I think we felt comfortable coming into this week."
He was far removed from the silent, sullen Week 3 Wilfork. Not surprising when it's all about the 'W' -- when bend-don't-break is all you need. That philosophy sufficed for 14-2 last year. The playoffs? That was a different story. Ask the Jets.And you know Wilfork remembers losing in the first round of 2010's postseason. He's not entirely satisfied right now -- not even after stopping McFadden and the Raiders' run.
Quite the contrary.
"We have to keep getting better," he said. "It's not the end of the road. 3-1, that's definitely not where we want to be. We have to keep growing. By far, we're not playing the type of football we're capable of playing. By far. We've just got to keep grinding each week, get better each week, keep moving forward each week. Guys are gaining confidence. Guys stepped up today that we were depending on. And you've got to make plays when it counts. That's what we did tonight."