|Wilfork's monster effort in the AFC title game helped change his image. (Getty Images)|
INDIANAPOLIS -- Vince Wilfork is asked a question: When did his transformation from good player to one of the best at his position in football happen? How did it happen?
"That's two questions," he joked.
So it is. But when?
"I don't know," he said. "These are hard things to answer. It's just happened."
How? "A lot of it is just confidence," he said. "No question."
For once, even Bill Belichick is more effusive than Wilfork. "He's been huge," 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."
Wilfork has always been good, but this season there was an escalation, a supernova, and as he blew up, so did a once-ridiculed New England Patriots defense.
"We had a lot of critics this year," Wilfork said. "The main thing I've been focused on is winning, not myself."
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It's much more complicated than that, of course. Wilfork won't say it, but as defensive leaders like Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired to studio sets and daily manicures -- leaving a leadership gap on defense -- it was Wilfork's big heart, serious skill and ample derriere that filled the void quite well.
There's something else that has happened with Wilfork, something perhaps more important.
Wilfork has become almost unstoppable. The man with the ample girth, quick wit and fast feet has quietly developed into one of the most ferocious interior players in the sport while simultaneously developing into a team leadership and dynamic force perhaps second to only Tom Brady.
Wilfork is now The Round Mound of Beat-Down.
"Vince is a highly competitive guy," guard Logan Mankins said. "He's strong, very strong. He's tough and for someone his size, he has very good endurance. He can keep going. It's not two plays and he's out of the game. He stays out there and he's still going."
What Wilfork has done is become an interior player not content with simply bull-rushing or overpowering. He has become a varied talent, and as Wilfork got better this year, so did the Patriots defense.
It's an interesting phenomenon. I actually think Wilfork has suffered in terms of recognition because he doesn't look like the prototypical ripped defensive lineman. His muscles are hidden by layers of blubber, and he doesn't have road-rage-like symptoms similar to a certain defensive lineman in Detroit. He's a talented grinder who doesn't draw massive media attention or seek it. Just a blue-collar guy with skills.
"I see the guy every day," offensive lineman Brian Waters said. "I know he works hard, I know he has a clear understanding for the game plan, I know he works as hard as anybody especially on that side of the ball. Vince is a hard guy to deal with. I've had the opportunity to play him in a different type of defense. The guy is a big guy who has some very good movement, very good feet and hands.
"That's something very difficult for a lineman to deal with. When you see him, you think it's all power; you just want to get your hands on him right away. As soon as you get too far over your toes, make too quick of a decision, he does something that all of the sudden gets you off your rocker and then he does have amazing amount of power and leverage. It doesn't surprise me at all that he's been able to be as productive as he has so far in his career."
One of the defining moments when Wilfork went from wide-bodied run-stopper to transformed all-around defender came late in the fourth quarter of the AFC title game against Baltimore. The Ravens had the ball at the Patriots 30 and trailing by three points. Wilfork obliterated two Baltimore plays. He hit Ray Rice for a 3-yard loss on third down, which forced the Ravens to go for it on fourth. On that fourth down, he was able to get to quarterback Joe Flacco and force an incompletion.
Wilfork wasn't always like this. He was once mostly used solely on first and second downs as a simple run stopper, but he has grown into something else.
When the Giants and Patriots first met in the Super Bowl, they viewed Wilfork as the biggest threat on defense. Imagine what they think of the new and improved Wilfork. They're going to need a tranquilizer gun to stop him.
Wilfork is playing the media game well. He has recently agreed with the notion that the Giants should be favored because they're hot.
"I would see why people would say they need to be favored," Wilfork said. "They're a heck of a ballclub. It seems like the later in the season it gets, the better they get. They peak at the right time. I understand, and trust me, I see the same thing that they see."
This is what New York sees: a dangerous player getting exponentially nastier. And they would be right.