FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Rob Ninkovich reached into his locker and pulled a football off the shelf, holding it high for everyone to see.

“I’m keeping this one,” he said. “Going on the mantel.”

He should put that ball on display. How many defensive players can say they’re responsible for a walk-off win in the NFL?

The New England Patriots were leading the New York Jets 29-26 with 7:35 left in overtime when the visitors faced a second-and-10 from their 40.

Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez dropped back to pass and quickly found New England’s Jermaine Cunningham wrapped around his legs. As Sanchez twisted his body, holding the ball high in his right hand, Ninkovich slammed into him, knocking the ball out.

As it rolled away, Ninkovich rushed over and covered the ball, ending the game and giving the Patriots a much-needed victory, improving to 4-3 and 2-0 in the AFC East.

That was just one of several big plays the 28-year-old Ninkovich made in the game, but it illustrated his importance to this New England defense.

Primarily a linebacker, he has been asked to play defensive end this year a lot. The last couple of games, he has gone back and forth at the two positions, but his contributions have not suffered.

“Rob is a guy that I think is always trying to prove that he can do something else,” said defensive back Devin McCourty, who had a 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. “I think he’s done a lot in this league and he’s done a lot for our team. He’s been a big reason we’ve won games. Whether it’s intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown, a sack-fumble, he just shows how versatile he is at making plays.”

Asked to classify exactly what Ninkovich brings to this team, Coach Bill Belichick said, “He’s at the end of the line. However you want to slice it up, whether he’s up or down or end or linebacker, whatever you want to call it, he’s an end-of-the-line-type player. Rob does a good job for us. He made a big play on the running play there, came inside and made the hit in the overtime series, and obviously the strip.

“He’s around the ball and always seems to play well against the Jets.”

Ninkovich was credited with six tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, two tackles that resulted in losses and two quarterback hits.

Ninkovich doesn’t seem to care where he plays, or how he’s classified.

“I try to just consistently be a good player for the team,” he said. “I’m still trying to go out there and do my job every day and get better. I think that playing linebacker, playing defensive end, I’m able to do a lot of things. Special teams … so, the more you can do…”

He admits that it’s been frustrating to watch his team lose fourth-quarter leads this year. His goal this week was simple: “finish.”

“I think it’s tough the last couple of games we lost, having a lead and they come back,” he said. “This game, the whole team I’m thinking, ‘This can’t happen again.’ “

That’s why he was proud of the way the defense held on. Twice in the fourth quarter, the Patriots forced the Jets to settle for a field goal. The second time came after McCourty had fumbled away a kickoff return, giving the Jets the ball at the New England 18 with 2:01 left.

By forcing the Jets to get just three points, that allowed Tom Brady and the offense to move in for the tying field goal, a 43-yarder as time expired, to force overtime.

Then, after the offense got a 48-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski in overtime, Ninkovich said he only had one thought:

“Win the game,” he said. “Do my job, whatever my job is on that particular play to the best of my ability, to help us walk away with the victory.”

He did a little more than that. He personally delivered it.

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH