FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Vince Wilfork’s first career interception was plastered all over the local news and national highlight reels last Sunday night.
It was hard to miss.
Somehow, though, Wilfork didn’t see it until the following day, eventually watching it for the first time while reviewing game film.
“When I got to that play, I slowed it down,” he said with a wry smile Thursday. “I wouldn’t lie to you, I looked at it just a couple times.”
New England’s 325-pound defensive tackle rattled Gillette Stadium with every mammoth stride during his 28-yard return, a game-changing play in the Patriots’ 35-21 win over San Diego that hardly had to be slowed down.
Now, as the focus shifts to surprising Buffalo (2-0), the Patriots (2-0) will hope for the same, steady play from the veteran Wilfork. The turnovers from him? Well, those are a bonus.
“This is a new Buffalo Bills team,” Wilfork said. “Looking at them on film, they’re making big plays after big plays. They actually look pretty good. It’s no smoke and mirrors with them.
“They’re the real deal.”
Behind smart and savvy quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and versatile running back Fred Jackson, the upstart Bills lead the league in scoring at 39.5 points per game. They feature the top rushing attack (190 yards a game) as well, and are 2-0 for the first time since 2008.
Now they get a chance to infiltrate a New England defense that’s allowing 479 yards a game, which ranks 31st in the NFL. And the Bills will also be eager to snap a losing streak vs. the Patriots that sits at 15 games.
“I think anytime you strap on this helmet you’re going to get teams’ best shot,” Patriots defensive end Shaun Ellis said. “Whether it’s 15-0, 0-4, whatever. I think it’s going to be one of those games that they’re going to come out at their home and they’re going to want to make a statement.”
They already have.
Buffalo has put the entire league on notice with its spread formations and revived running game, fueled by Jackson and his league-leading 229 yards and 6.5 yards per carry, fourth best among running backs.
He’ll try and do what Miami and San Diego couldn’t — eclipse the century mark against a massive New England defensive line which is surrendering just 98 yards a game.
“This guy — I think I said it a couple years ago, I know I said it last year — he is so underrated,” Wilfork said of Jackson, a fifth-year back out of little-known Coe College. “He’s just one of those tough backs. You can give him the ball 30 times if you want to.”
His innate ability to sneak through the line, sniff out holes and even catch passes aren’t the only skills Jackson brings to the offense.
“He does a great job in protecting his quarterback, pass blocking,” Ellis said. “When teams do send blitzes to him, he picks up the blitz pretty well.”
That’s just part of the reason for Fitzpatrick’s early success. The rest of it comes naturally.
A Harvard graduate who spent four years as a backup in Cincinnati and St. Louis before signing with Buffalo in 2009, Fitzpatrick once scored a 48 out of 50 on the pre-draft Wonderlic Test, completing it in record time, too.
Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty is well aware of Fitzpatrick’s smarts, and that the Patriots defense is in for another kind of exam this week.
“He’s kind of running that show and it’s moving pretty well,” McCourty said, earlier touching on Fitzpatrick’s Ivy League pedigree. “I think that’s the main thing, he’s not throwing interceptions, he’s not taking sacks, he’s not making bad plays. He’s just playing pretty good right now.”
At least as well as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has identical numbers (seven touchdowns, one interception) as his AFC East counterpart. But Fitzpatrick and the Bills’ strong start shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
After opening 0-8 last year under then first-year coach Chan Gailey, Buffalo played .500 football over the second half of the season before hitting the road to open 2011 by dismantling the Chiefs, 41-7.
The Bills then became the first team since 2007 and only the fifth in the last 15 years to score a touchdown on every second-half possession when Fitzpatrick found David Nelson for a 6-yard touchdown — the fifth of the half — on fourth down with 14 seconds remaining to lead them to a stunning 38-35 victory over Oakland.
Wilfork, for one, has witnessed how far the Bills have come. In his eighth season with the Patriots, he has never lost to Buffalo. He doesn’t want to start now.
“Right now, you see what certain teams are doing and what they’re trying to do, and this is one of those weeks where we see where Buffalo can head with this, and right now they’re heading in the right place,” he said. “We’re going to have to do a real good job of playing some good football because if we don’t, we’ll be coming back here with an ‘L’.”