FOXBOROUGH - Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork walked out of his meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell Tuesday afternoon, one obvious worry behind him, a more subtle one ahead. Wilfork had not been suspended for New England's game Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts, a real and troubling possibility for Wilfork when he walked into the meeting.
Wilfork felt satisfied for other reasons, too. He learned about Goodell during their conversation, and he felt Goodell came to know him. Goodell listened to him explain how he approaches football, the topic that led to the next issue Wilfork must confront. Wilfork left New York not only with satisfaction, but also with the hope that his reputation can be salvaged.
"Right now," Wilfork said, "I got a pretty bad one out there."
When Wilfork pulls on his shoulder pads in Indianapolis - his wallet a bit thinner from the fine Goodell issued him in lieu of a suspension - he will have a new, taxing thought on his mind: Can he play with his usual aggression between whistles, while never again inviting discipline for what he does after them?
The question came to the fore this week after the NFL reviewed a play from the Patriots' 41-7 victory over Denver Oct. 20, during which Wilfork appeared to elbow Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler in the head after a play. Wilfork's past - four similar plays last year - made the meeting a necessity for the league and a means for Wilfork to begin re casting his image.
"I play hard, and that's one thing I stressed to him - I'm very passionate about the game," Wilfork said. "Sometimes it might be too hard, and I told him that. We'll go from here. I told him I'll try to change my style up a little bit and, hopefully, get a better slate. We hit some areas that needed to be touched on from his standpoint and my standpoint. We both listened to each other, and I think that was the main thing."
Coach Bill Belichick declined to comment on Wilfork's latest league discipline, saying the Patriots "don't have anything to do with it. It's a league matter. Whatever they want to say about it, they can say about it."
Cutler, however, had something to say.
"I think it was on the second fumble," he said. "I got rolled up by [Rodney] Harrison and then on my way back up, I think he gave me a forearm to the head. I was a little dizzy afterward. I guess [Broncos management] called it in on him. I didn't even really watch the hit on film."
Wilfork played his first three NFL seasons without drawing action from the league, and earning his place as one of football's best run-stuffers. The latter remains true, but the former changed last year.
The NFL fined Wilfork a combined $35,000 for four separate incidents, most severely $12,500 (later reduced to $10,000) for a low hit on Buffalo Bills quarterback J.P. Losman and $15,000 for sticking a finger inside the facemask of New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs. Wilfork, after his blow to Losman, pleaded that he was not a "dirty player." Wilfork's hit on Cutler likely would have slid without a face-to-face meeting in New York, but not with Wilfork's growing pattern.
"The meeting was productive," Wilfork said. "I think both sides were happy. I got a chance for him to hear my side of my story and how I approach the game. I got a chance to hear what he had to say about the whole situation of my past history and playing football and all that good stuff. I think we both left pretty happy.
"I'm very happy that I got a chance to sit down and have a one-on-one with him. I'm pretty sure there are a lot of things he learned about me, and I learned about him. We'll go forward from here."
Much of the conversation, Wilfork said, centered on him harnessing the passion with which he has always played while not adding to the litany of transgressions the league has chastened him for.
"How hard I play, and at times it's at the end of the play when things happen," Wilfork said. "At the end of the play, taper down a little, but in between the whistle I'm fine. He wants me to take it down at the end of the plays."
Wilfork will need to broker a balance between tapering down and maintaining his usual style. He anchors the Patriots' defense, clogging the middle of the line and drawing multiple blockers. Even against the Colts, who average a league-worst 73.4 rushing yards per game, Wilfork's teammates believe they need him to play. And, after a close call, he will.
"Most definitely," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "It's very important. He's a key run-stopper. He's key on the pass defense, also. I never saw the play, so I don't know what happened. Personally, Vince is not a dirty guy. I've never seen him talk like that. I've never seen him act like that, either. So whatever happened, I'm pretty sure it wasn't intentional. I'm glad he's going to be in there."
Adam Kilgore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Christopher L. Gasper of the Globe staff contributed to this report.