I'm spending 50 days ranking the top 50 players of the Bill Belichick Era, from No. 50 down to No. 1. (Click here for a criteria on how I made my selections.)
Today we reach . . . .
NUMBER 21: ROB NINKOVICH
Years With Patriots: 2009-present
Playoff Games: 12
Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)
Ask a bar full of Pats fans to name the three greatest plays of the Patriots’ Super Bowl win over Seattle and you probably won’t hear the name Rob Ninkovich mentioned. But every great play of the final quarter was set up in large part by a Ninkovich play with 14:19 left.
The Patriots trailed, 24-14, and Seattle had the ball at its own 39 facing a third-and-7. This was a must-have stop. Ninkovich, coming off the right side of the Seattle offensive line, came up with an eight-yard sack of the elusive Russell Wilson. The Seahawks punted and the Patriots put together two touchdown drives (and another white-knuckle defensive stop) to win their fourth Super Bowl.
More obscure from the same game? Third-and-one at the Patriots 8 with 11:51 remaining in the third quarter. Ninkovich stuffs Marshawn Lynch for no gain. Seattle settles for a field goal and has a little something to think about for later in the game.
You forget about Ninkovich sometimes, partly because he’s such a fixture. He’s missed one game since 2009. He played 95 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps in 2013, 94 percent in 2014. Defensive ends aren’t supposed to be able to do that. But Ninkovich does. And every year, you can write him down for 8.0 sacks (his total the past three seasons), close to 80 tackles, and fumble forces/recoveries. In 2012, Nink created five fumbles and recovered four, both near the top of the NFL.
The players who got New England’s early success started get a lot of love on this list. But we can’t overstate their accomplishments at the expense of the later guys. For instance, Willie McGinest -- who we still haven’t gotten to -- had 38.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries, 3 interceptions and 317 tackles from 2000 through 2005. From 2009 through 2014, Ninkovich had 35.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries, 5 interceptions and 385 tackles. Different positions and they were different ages at the time, but you get the point (I hope).
No flash. All substance. That’s been Ninkovich.