By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
Coming off a disappointing performance against punt returner Julian Edelman and the New England Patriots, Bruce Arians issued a simple challenge to Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee last week.
Have the best game of your career.
McAfee responded by booting his five kicks an average of 51.2 yards and pinning the Buffalo Bills twice inside their 20-yard line. The punt coverage team did its job as well, holding dangerous return man Leodis McKelvin to 24 yards on his two returns and allowing McAfee a robust 46.4-yard net average.
“I thought (special teams) won the game for us,” Arians said of a unit that also produced a 75-yard touchdown on a punt return by rookie T.Y. Hilton in the 20-13 victory. “Not only with the return for the touchdown and the field position they created but how well they covered. Those are two great returners (in McKelvin and kickoff specialist Brad Smith). We asked Pat to have his best game ever as a kicker, and he really contributed. He kicked the ball great.”
The outing stood in stark contrast to the previous week’s effort at New England.
Patriots return man Julian Edelman averaged 58.5 yards on two punt returns and scored on a 68-yarder that tied the game and swung momentum in the second quarter. The big returns left McAfee with a net average of 7.3 yards on his three punt attempts and a bit of chip on his shoulder.
“We gave up two long returns (against the Patriots), it kind of — I don’t want to say — got us upset a little bit,” McAfee said this week at the Colts’ practice facility. “But we knew going into Leodis McKelvin we were going to have to do something special. He’s the best punt returner in the league.”
McAfee never lost confidence in his coverage team, especially gunners Joe Lefeged and Sergio Brown — whom he calls the best at their positions in the NFL.
He knew the Colts had a game like Sunday’s in them, and he was excited to play a part in it.
“Our coverage teams did great, like they always do,” he said. “It was just a fun game to be part of. That’s what you think of whenever you think about having a good game, is something like that. And obviously, to contain a guy who is so talented, like (McKelvin) is, we were happy to get out of there.”
As the calendar flips from November to December, everything in the NFL gets magnified.
Wins mean more. Losses cost more.
And the spotlight finds every phase of the game.
Look no further than last year’s conference championship games. The Baltimore Ravens lost at New England when a late field goal attempt that would have forced overtime sailed wide. A few hours later, the San Francisco 49ers lost at home to the New York Giants after a muffed punt return in overtime.
Indianapolis finds itself in the heart of the AFC playoff chase with five games remaining in the regular season, and McAfee knows this is the time to play his best.
“I think you always need to get better,” he said. “Anytime you’re making a playoff push, everybody needs to have their best games. I look at every single game as a playoff push so I’ve been trying to be my best every single game.”
McAfee set a franchise mark last season with a gross punting average of 46.6 yards. He’s ahead of that mark by 1.5 yards this season.
He also could finally take down Colts legend Rohn Stark for the net average record. Stark posted a 39.3 mark in 1992, and McAfee got within a whisker of it at 39.2 last season.
This year, thanks in large part to the Patriots game, he’s just off the pace at 38.9.
Head coach Chuck Pagano, special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf and special teams assistant Brant Boyer changed the culture when they took control of the team this spring.
McAfee said that’s made all the difference.
“We’re not going to be a part of the game, we’re going to change the game,” he said of the new coaching staff’s special teams philosophy. “It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of this year. As opposed to guys being punished and getting put on special teams, guys want to be on special teams. It’s a big difference in the mind-set, especially when guys are running down the field trying to tackle a human being running full speed. It takes a special guy to go out there and do it, and our coverage teams have been amazing.”