FOXBOROUGH -- He got the record the way he's gotten most of his success in New England. He got the record when no one was expecting it.
When Willie McGinest threw Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard to the ground late last night in what would become a dominating, 28-3 AFC wild-card victory for the Patriots, it made him the all-time leading sacker in NFL playoff history. He passed Reggie White and Bruce Smith on the same night, which was one reason the Jaguars could not pass all night. At least not the way they needed to get by New England and advance to the divisional round.
McGinest was in the face of Byron Leftwich three times before he finally drove poor Garrard to the ground twice, 1 1/2 times, technically, since he had to share the party once with Richard Seymour before he finally drove Garrard to the ground all on his own one last time to register the 16th postseason sack of his 12-year career. When he got it, McGinest did not dance. He did not pull a cellphone out of his shoe or grab pom-poms from the cheerleaders or whip out a Sharpie and try to autograph Garrard's helmet and throw it to his agent in the stands.
He did high-step just a bit more than usual, but then he headed to the sideline, where he could savor the moment the way he has so many others the past four years, when so much success has come to him so late in his career. On the sideline with his smiling teammates was where McGinest most wanted to be.
''It's an honor to be in the same company with those guys," McGinest said later when asked about passing White, who is a Hall of Famer, and Smith, who will be one in four years or so. ''I knew about it before the game but it didn't cross my mind. I was just trying to give our team the best chance to win."
In the biggest game of the season to date (which means until next weekend against either Denver or Indianapolis), McGinest had his biggest night. His 4 1/2 sacks approached his season total of six and his eight tackles were the most he'd made all year. In fact, they were more than he'd made the last month. When his team needed him most, he had given them the most, harassing the Jaguars' quarterbacks until they either ended up upside down or throwing the ball too soon, or too late, or too often to places where it was not intended to go.
It was the kind of night McGinest has had before, although a bit more dominating, but the way he suddenly seemed to break an NFL record that took him half a decade to build was just as familiar because McGinest has been that kind of player for much of his career, a player who has done more, but has been noticed less, than one would think.
McGinest has been credited in recent years for his locker room presence and his play on the field but not once has his name been mentioned in the same sentence with White or Smith. Then, seemingly in one night, he's suddenly ahead of both of them, standing alone among postseason pass rushers not many years after some suggested he should be included among retired pass rushers, after nagging injuries seemed to rob him of one opportunity after another.
''A couple of years ago people counted me out," McGinest said. ''I got a commitment to this game like no other. I've been playing it since I was 8 years old. Football is important to me.
''I'm my worst critic. I'm constantly challenging myself, trying to stay focused and level-headed. When you think you're doing all right, that's when you're not doing all right."
Last night he was doing more than all right. He was doing a dance on the head of whatever quarterback the Jaguars sent out there. He and his teammates were repeatedly swirling around Leftwich, pressuring him, squeezing him, giving him little room to breathe and few opportunities to set his feet and look comfortably downfield.
Charging Leftwich was Seymour and Rosevelt Colvin and Vince Wilfork and cornerbacks and safeties and, most often, the 34-year-old McGinest, a man who refused to quit when so many suggested it might be the wisest course. Back in those dark days when his body seemed more his enemy than his ally, McGinest listened to no one but himself, his coaches, and the teammates that believed in him. Most of all he did what he did last night and has done through three successful runs to the Super Bowl and one unsuccessful one. He kept working and he kept coming and it paid off.
''We all talk about who's going to make the next play," McGinest said of the competitive force that drives him. ''There are a lot of expectations in this locker room. We still . . . still could have done some things better."
After a record-breaking performance over a team that had won 12 games this season, that was McGinest's final conclusion. He could have done some things better.
That sternly held belief in the need for more, as much as any physical gifts he has or mental preparation, is how all those sacks came about. It's how he's survived all the games and all the pain over all those years. They all came because he took nothing for granted. Neither success nor failure. Neither victory nor defeat. None of it changed Willie McGinest's approach to his job.
It was, and remains, the professional's approach, one that led him to two Jaguars' quarterbacks 4 1/2 times last night, enough times to disrupt their game and propel his team to another game and another chance to still be playing when almost everyone else in the NFL is home watching.