By David Willis
FOXBORO — Yesterday, Patriots fans finally saw the Jerod Mayo everyone has been waiting for.
The 2010 All-Pro linebacker turned in possibly the two greatest plays of his NFL career — a tremendous fourth-down goal-line stop and game-changing forced fumble — in the Patriots' 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
"Mayo had a great game," said fellow linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "That stop at the goal line was huge. That is why he is the leader of our defense. He can make plays like that."
Sure, in his three-year (and one-game) tenure in New England, he had made 287 tackles and made a Pro Bowl. But there were no truly defining moment in his NFL career.
That is, until yesterday ... when there were two.
"He made some huge plays," said safety Sergio Brown. "That is his job to control the defense and come up with the big play. We don't expect any less."
Signature play No. 1 came midway through the second quarter. With the Patriots ahead 10-7, San Diego faced a fourth-and-goal from the New England 1-yard line.
"We pretty much knew that (the right) was their run side," said Mayo. "They sent in their blocking tight end (Randy McMichael) so we knew the run was going there."
The Chargers sent 243-pound Mike Tolbert off tackle right. But Mayo was able to hurdle a defender and stop Tolbert in his tracks for a turnover on downs.
"I don't even think I was hit by an offensive lineman," said Mayo. "(Tolbert) is a stocky guy and a tough runner so I just tried to hit him low."
That proved to be a game-changing play, with the Patriots responding with a 99-yard touchdown drive.
"That was huge because the momentum could have shifted in their favor with a touchdown," said defensive lineman Myron Pryor. "We knew we had to stop him."
But Mayo wasn't done there.
With the Patriots ahead 20-14 with 10:27 to go in the game, the Chargers had just stolen momentum, forcing a turnover on downs at midfield and advancing to the New England 34-yard line.
But, on a give play, Tolbert attempted to cut back and Mayo met him in the backfield, knocking the ball loose with a swat of his hand. The fumble that was recovered by Ninkovich.
"He was back there dancing around," said Mayo. "I just tried to hit the ball. I tried to put either my hat (helmet) or hand on the ball, one of the two. And it came loose."
That turnover also proved immense, as the Patriots responded with another touchdown drive that gave them a 28-14 lead.
"Mayo is in a league of his own," said Prior. "Especially with the change in defensive fronts (to a 4-3), he has just kept making plays."
For the game, Mayo made a team-high 11 tackles, including eight solo stops.
But instead of simply making tackles, Mayo was making plays. He was active around the line of scrimmage and aggressive whether it was the bruising Tolbert (nine carries, 10 yards) or the speedy Ryan Mathews (12 carries, 64 yards).
It may not be time to rank him with Ray Lewis just yet, but the 2010 All-Pro truly lived up to his billing last night.
"In my two years here, it is what we expect out of Jerod," said defensive back Devin McCourty. "Mayo is the leader of this team. He makes plays in the running game. As a defense, we look to Mayo."