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QBREES9 12-30-2010 10:40 PM

FOXBORO — Things couldn’t have gone much better the last time Rob Ninkovich faced one of his former teams.

The linebacker recorded his first two career interceptions and helped the Patriots defense confuse and other confound Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne in a 41-14 romp at Dolphins Stadium on Oct. 4. He also sacked the quarterback once, defended two passes and hurried the quarterback on another snap.

“It’s always fun to play against a team that you’ve actually been on and you know the guys on the team,” Ninkovich said of playing his ex-mates. “Hopefully, I can repeat, have a repeat performance.”

Bill Belichick is fond of keeping his players focused on the job – and game – at hand. Ninkovich says this week’s regular-season finale is no different, even if that October breakout game did bolster his confidence.

“Well, it’s over with, so you can’t look back on what you’ve done,” he said. “It was one of those games where I knew I could do it [and] I knew I had that in me, so it was a confidence booster.”

But what Ninkovich, Patrick Chung, Brandon Tate and Kyle Arrington really showed that day was that these Patriots are capable of winning games in practically any manner possible.

“I think that’s one of the best things about the Patriots is it’s a performance-based evaluation of how good you are and if you can help the team out and do anything for the team, you’re going to have a chance to help the team,” Ninkovich said.

Ninkovich played at Joliet Junior College before playing at Purdue – where he caught a TD pass from Kyle Orton. Ninkovich was a star defensive end when he was drafted by the Saints in fifth round of the 2006 NFL Draft. After a successful 2006 rookie season, his first stint with the Saints ended before the 2007 season when he was carted off with a knee injury that forced him to miss the preseason. But he was picked up by the Dolphins and played for the team that won just one game.

“There are a lot of good football players all across America that hadn’t had a chance that probably, possibly could have had a good career in the league or done something in the league,” Ninkovich said. “All you need is that opportunity, and that’s life: opportunity.”

And sometimes opportunity comes when you least expect it – like when he was let go by the Saints a second time in the 2009 training camp, only to sign with the Patriots shortly thereafter.

“Two years ago would be when I got cut from New Orleans being a snapper, that was probably the most discouraging part of my career,” said Ninkovich, who . “You go from a defensive lineman to a long snapper, and then getting cut before camp even started to even show you can do it.”

Now, he has turned into a starting outside linebacker for the best team in the AFC.

“This year has been another year where I’ve been able to achieve some of my goals that I had written out a long time ago,” Ninkovich said. “It’s a good feeling, but I still have some more to go.

“Some guys are given an opportunity to go out there and whatever it may be, fail. Some guys don’t even have a chance to go out there. I think that certain players have been given opportunity and they haven’t failed, and they’ve done well and they’ve made some plays. It’s one of those things where you get a chance, and you’ve got to make the best of it.”

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