FOXBORO — Vince Wilfork was having a playful conversation with Pepper Johnson a couple weeks ago when a most unlikely topic arose.
“Man, I might end my career without an interception,” Wilfork told his defensive line coach.
Wilfork then asked a fellow defensive lineman if he’d ever reeled in a pick.
“Nope, never had one,” the teammate replied.
Well, in addition to the Patriots’ 35-21 victory over the Chargers at Gillette Stadium, Wilfork had extra cause to celebrate on Sunday.
When it comes to that first NFL interception, he’s officially off the schneid.
The 325-pound tackle’s pick came late in the final minute of the second half, with quarterback Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense looking to cut into New England’s 17-7 advantage before halftime.
On the 12th play of the series, with 19 seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Chargers faced a 1st-and-10 from the Patriots’ 29-yard line. Out of the shotgun, Rivers threaded a short pass to his right, intended for running back Mike Tolbert.
Wilfork, of all people, met the ball first.
The eight-year veteran jumped the route and batted Rivers’ pass into the air with his left hand at the New England 35. He used his right hand to gather the airborne ball before rumbling 36 yards to the San Diego 29.
“He was stumbling and tumbling,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Said Wilfork, “I actually tipped it to myself. I’m just happy I caught it, because if I didn’t catch it I’m pretty sure my teammates would have got me. As much junk as we talk around here, who’s better defense or offense, who can play what position, I’m pretty sure they would have let me have it if I would have dropped that ball. Now I can talk smack to them.”
No matter. Wilfork’s teammates gave him some good-natured ribbing anyway.
“It was a magnificent feat of athleticism,” said left tackle Matt Light. “You saw Vince’s speed. He’s a real threat out there.”
“That was legit,” added a laughing tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught two touchdown passes in the win.
Did Wilfork think he could roll all the way to the end zone?
“Yeah,” he said with confidence. “Anytime you get your hands on the ball, you always think about scoring as a defensive player. A lot of times you don’t get a chance to touch the ball, so you never know, you never know. It’s just one of those things.”
He insists he wasn’t gassed afterward, either.
“No. I’m a well-conditioned athlete,” Wilfork said. “I was good.”
To the surprise of no one, Rivers – never one to hide his emotions – wore a look of utter disbelief after the play.
Wilfork wasn’t so shocked.
“We play a lot of situational football around here,” he said. “In that situation, with two minutes [remaining], you kind of know what they were trying to do. I wasn’t saying I was right, but I saw the running back take out, so I was thinking screen. From the look I got from afar and just anticipating, I was anticipating it could be a screen.
“I made a play. [Coach] Bill [Belichick] always says if you take a chance, you better make it. I guess I made it tonight.”
Most important, Wilfork’s interception – one of four turnovers forced by the Patriots on Sunday – helped set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 47-yard field goal with one second left in the second quarter, pushing the Pats’ lead to 20-7 at the half.
“Tonight we played a great complementary football game,” Wilfork said.
And in the ongoing battle of trash talk between the Patriots’ offensive and defensive players, the latter apparently have a leg up.
“We always talk smack about who’s the better athlete,” Wilfork said. “I think I’d put defense ahead of offense right now. We have athletes on defense also.”