If there had been any doubt - and little seemed to exist anyway - Jerod Mayo's 20-tackle performance Thursday night erased it with authority.
Already considered a leading contender for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, the Patriots linebacker is now clutching the trophy and wrapping it up as he does opposing ballcarriers. His effort against the Jets had researchers turning back the clock more than a decade, searching for the last time the Patriots had a defender with 20 stops.
Since Stats Inc. began keeping the stat in 1994, no Patriots linebacker had reached 20 tackles. The NFL does not keep tackles as an official stat, so the totals are tabulated by in-game statisticians, and some teams later modify them after coaches' film review.
With seven games to play, Mayo leads the Patriots with 85 tackles. That ranks him second in the NFL, behind Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson.
As for Mayo's competition for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Rams end Chris Long (four sacks) is part of the discussion, as are Redskins safety Chris Horton (three interceptions), Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib (three INTs), Dolphins end Kendall Langford (eight starts, two sacks), and Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton (team-high 53 tackles).
Giants safety Kenny Phillips, Seahawks end Lawrence Jackson, and Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie might sneak on a few ballots, but none has played to Mayo's level.
While 20-tackle performances are a rarity, and sometimes can be misleading, Mayo's effort Thursday night doesn't fall into that category. He earned every one of his tackles - 11 of which came against the run, nine of which came on passing plays.
In fact, while the Patriots' stat-keepers are considered one of the best crews in the NFL - they were picked by the NFL to work Super Bowl XLII - Mayo is probably going to end up with a few more tackles once coaches review the film.
That's how much Mayo, who also deflected a pass in the first quarter, was around the ball.
Mayo was especially active in the fourth quarter and overtime, when he rang up 13 tackles, none more impressive than his goal-line stick of running back Thomas Jones with 3:21 remaining in regulation.
He was later in on two other key tackles late in the fourth quarter - runs by Jones of 3 yards and 1 yard that stopped him short of the first down, giving the Patriots the ball back to set up the dramatic game-tying drive. On the latter play, Mayo launched himself through an opening, stunning Jones as he entered the hole.
"I'm sure he slept like a baby after that one; 20 tackles in this game, at this level, that will wear you out," said Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett, who now works as the Patriots' executive director of community affairs.
"He came to play. You can see his athletic ability and quickness, which has been key to him being effective. But on top of that, he also has the right work ethic. He's a student of the game. For any rookie to do what he's doing, that says a lot about the person."
Mayo was on the field for all but four defensive plays Thursday, and on the season he has played 86 percent of the snaps, which reflects how he's part of almost every personnel package in the team's diverse defense. The only time he came off the field Thursday was when the Patriots went to a 4-3 alignment.
"He's figured out a way to stay on the field, which is key," Tippett said. "We took a trip with all the rookies to Canton [and the Hall of Fame] earlier this year, and one of the things that I learned about him is that he knows the learning never stops, that you can always get better. He's a good kid and he works hard at it."
Along those lines, Mayo probably will take a closer look at his work in zone pass coverage this week, as there appeared to be more opportunities to make plays in that area.
In particular, Mayo was one of four linebackers on the field on a crucial third-and-15 play in overtime when the Jets converted a 16-yard pass to tight end Dustin Keller. Two defenders wound up in the same zone on the play - one appeared to be Mayo - creating the surprising opening for Keller.
Of Keller's eight catches, Mayo was in on the tackle six times, a reflection of how the Jets seemed to be working on the matchup of tight end vs. linebacker in zone coverage.
Still, Mayo was competitive on several of those catches, as he was regularly around the ball.
"I think you're seeing that the game is coming to him," Tippett said. "The thing for him now is to show he has the endurance to go the distance, and have that longevity. He's off to a nice start."