- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It was quite the first playoff weekend for the NFL. In a game that revolves around quarterbacks (and the receivers who love them), we found ourselves talking about a punter, a safety and a 5-foot-6 part-time running back. What is this, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl?

Not that I’m complaining. The punter, Mike Scifres, might have had the greatest punting day in pro football history in the Chargers’ 23-17 overtime victory over the Colts. (I say “might” because, well, nobody kept statistics for thunder-footed Fats Henry back in the ‘20s.)

The safety, meanwhile, Ed Reed of the Ravens, is on an incredible hot streak, maybe the best ever for a defensive back. With his two picks in Sunday’s 27-9 cuffing of the Dolphins, Reed now has five two-interception games in the last seven weeks. (According to my research, no DB has done anything like that since the 1970 merger - and probably longer.)

Then there’s Scifres’ abbreviated teammate, Darren Sproles, who stepped in for hobbled LaDainian Tomlinson and rushed for 105 yards against Indianapolis, the last 22 resulting in the winning score. How often, in this game of gargantuans, does somebody Sproles’ size have that kind of impact?

Let’s start with Reed because he plays just up the road in Baltimore and is the only one in the group with Hall of Fame prospects. Consider: Ed has 43 interceptions in just 106 NFL games. He’s picking off passes, in other words, at a rate not seen since the days of Ronnie Lott and Lem Barney. And in Lott’s and Barney’s eras, I’ll just point out, quarterbacks threw considerably more INTs.

Of course, playing on the back end of the Ravens’ quarterback-crunching defense has its benefits. As Reed said Sunday, one of the reasons he intercepted Miami’s Chad Pennington twice was that - “because of the rush” - Pennington didn’t have time to look him off. He had to find a receiver ASAP and get rid of the ball.

“It’s not me they have to worry about,” he said. “It’s the rush.”

He was being overly modest, though. Safeties like Reed - safeties who can read a QB, make difficult catches in traffic and run with the ball when they get it - come along once in a generation. And in my book, his current streak ranks right up there with Night Train Lane’s 14 interceptions in 12 games in 1952 (still the season record) and Lester Hayes’ heroics in ‘80 (at least one INT in 12 games).

Which brings us to Scifres. When was the last time you heard a losing coach say a punter was “the difference” in a playoff game - 1942, maybe? But that’s what Tony Dungy called Scifres after he dropped all six of his kicks inside the Indy 20 (five of them at or inside the 10). In addition, Scifres averaged 52.7 yards a boot and netted 51.7 - about as close to perfection as a punter can get.

“I couldn’t lay down tonight and go to sleep and dream of something like that,” he said afterward.

How did this kid remain a secret for so long? Answer: By playing in the same conference as the Raiders’ Shane Lechler, whose career average of 46.8 yards is the best of all time. This isn’t Scifres’ first fabulous performance in the playoffs, either. Two years ago, he pinned the Patriots at their 10, 7, 14, 2 and 15 with his surgical punts - but nobody remembers because the Bolts blew the game.

People will remember this game, though - which might be as big an accomplishment as anything Scifres did on the field. After all, how many Great Moments In Punting do any of us have stored away in our cerebellums? We recall things KICKERS do or don’t do - Adam Vinatieri winning the Super Bowl, Garo Yepremian trying to throw a pass - but punters? They’re as forgettable as a member of the chain gang.

Finally, we have Sproles, who looks like a Refugee From D-III in the Chargers’ huddle. The Colts must have nightmares about him. In last year’s playoffs, he turned a routine flat pass into a 56-yard touchdown - one of the keys to San Diego’s upset of Indy. And now he explodes for 328 yards against them (105 rushing, 45 receiving, 72 punt returning, 105 kickoff returning).

Here’s a stat for you: Only three times in Sproles’ four-year career has he had as many as 10 rushing attempts in a game. In each instance, he gained more than 100 yards. Think there might be some interest in him on the free agent market this winter?

Anyway, what an opening weekend for the NFL playoffs. It’s enough to make you wonder what’s in store down the road. Maybe there’s a long snapper out there whose time has come. If a punter can infiltrate the national conversation, anything’s possible.

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