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Playoffs
Championship games
Sunday
NFC
San Francisco at Atlanta, 3 p.m., Fox
AFC
Baltimore at New England, 6:30 p.m., CBS
Associated Press
New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich, a former Purdue star, had an interception and recovered an onside kick in the Patriots’ playoff win over Houston last week.

Pats’ Ninkovich has nose for ball

– Rob Ninkovich has a knack for forcing fumbles. He’s also pretty good at recovering them.

He even does both on the same play.

“That’s hustle,” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said. “Rob’s a guy whose engine’s always going.”

It was revving last Sunday when the defensive end dropped into the middle of the field late in the third quarter and intercepted a pass by Houston’s Matt Schaub in New England’s 41-28 divisional playoff win over the Texans.

And when the Texans tried an onside kick with 5:11 left in the fourth, Ninkovich pounced on it.

“I wanted to get the ball,” the former Purdue star said, “that’s for sure.”

He always does – and is prepared to grab some more fumbles Sunday when the Patriots (13-4) face the Baltimore Ravens (12-6) in the AFC championship game.

“As a defensive player, you’re always thinking the ball is a key,” Ninkovich said. “You’re looking at the ball on the snap. You’re trying to find the ball in pursuit. And when people are around the ball making plays, you’re always aware of where it’s at.

“If it’s fumbled or if it’s on the ground, you’ve got to get on it. Let everyone else decide what’s going on, as long as you get the ball it’ll all work itself out.”

His nine recoveries of opponents’ fumbles over the past three seasons are the most by any defensive player during those years, according to Elias Sports Bureau. This season, he was tied for second in the league with four recoveries and forced five fumbles.

Ninkovich got one of each on the same play, the one that ended the Patriots’ 29-26 overtime win over the New York Jets in the seventh game of the season.

Stephen Gostkowski had kicked the go-ahead field goal for New England, but New York still had a chance to tie or win. The Jets had the ball at their 40 when Ninkovich hit Mark Sanchez high while Jermaine Cunningham got him low for a sack. The ball came loose and Ninkovich pounced on it.

Game over.

“He’s always been like that,” said Tony Samuel, a former assistant at Purdue who coached Ninkovich as a senior with the Boilermakers. He is now coach at Southeast Missouri State. “He’s got that uncanny vision. He’s got that way of just being Johnny-On-The-Spot, doesn’t he?”

He sure does.

Ninkovich was in the right spot when the Patriots signed him as a free agent in 2009. Injuries slowed him after the Saints drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, but he has been healthy with the Patriots.

Ninkovich played in 15 games with the Patriots in 2009, making 10 tackles on defense and 11 on special teams. He started 10 games as an outside linebacker in 2010, then started all 16 in 2011. This season he shifted to defensive end, starting every game. He led the team with eight sacks.

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