San Diego's Secret Weapon

The Bolts' "massive weapon" is ready to stick it to the Steelers after helping to take care of the Colts.Catch a special edition of Football Night in San Diego Sunday, Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. with Jim Laslavic live in Pittsburgh

The Colts biggest nemesis in Saturday night's wild-card loss to the Chargers wasn't a defender eager to pound him into the ground or pick off a pass.
It was punter Mike Scifres, San Diego's secret weapon, who stuck six punts inside the 20-yard line and was as big a reason as any that San Diego stuck a fork in Manning's MVP season.
Darren Bennett, the former Australian Rules football star who punted for the Chargers for nine years and helped break in Scifres as a rookie, called it "the single best punting game I've ever seen."
It was the first time in playoff history a punter dropped that many kicks that deep, and his 52.7-yard average was third-highest in playoff history.

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Bennett was doing a postgame radio show at Junior Seau's restaurant in Mission Valley when Scifres (pronounced SEYE'-furz) walked in.

"It was the first time I've ever seen a punter get a standing ovation in a restaurant," said Bennett, a two-time Pro Bowler who made the NFL's All-Decade team for the 1990s. "That was pretty cool."

Scifres, who has a booming leg and a sky-high hang time, tried to deflect the credit for his big night.

"Luck, man," he said with a laugh.

"We work at it," Scifres said, turning serious for just a minute. "I punted how I'm capable of punting and I feel good about it."

Scifres' impressive night didn't totally dispel the myth that NFL specialists just stand around for most of practice.

"No, we really do just stand around for two hours every day," said Scifres, an easygoing sixth-year pro from Louisiana. "We just kick every once in a while."

Scifres continually put Manning and the Colts in horrible field position. His punts of 51, 58, 50, 67, 38 and 52 yards forced the Colts to start drives at the 10, 19, 3, 7, 9 and 1-yard lines.

His biggest punt was the 52-yarder that bounced out of bounds at the 1 with 2:41 to play and the Chargers trailing 17-14. Had it bounced into the end zone for a touchback, the Colts probably would've had a better shot at a first down to put the game away. Instead, Manning was sacked, the Colts punted, Darren Sproles had a 26-yard return and Nate Kaeding kicked a tying 26-yard field goal to force overtime. The Chargers won 23-17 on Sproles' 22-yard run 6:20 into OT.

"I think that their punter is the MVP of the game," Colts running back Dominic Rhodes said afterward.

"It's not often another team has to acknowledge the other team's punter was the difference in the game," Bennett said.

"I think he was hotter than a pistol," general manager A.J. Smith said. "Things were really, really falling in line."

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hopes he doesn't get saddled with similarly bad field position when the Chargers visit Sunday.

"He won that game for them," Roethlisberger said. "That's enormous, especially when you have a team backed up and they're punting and you think you are going to get field position and all of a sudden they put it inside the 10-yard line."

The Steelers beat the Chargers on Nov. 16 at Pittsburgh in the only 11-10 game in NFL history. After the Steelers came up with a safety early in the second quarter, Scifres boomed a 75-yard free kick to the Pittsburgh 5. The Steelers returned only to the 12 and had a penalty, winding up with the ball on the 6.

"He knocked us back deep again," Roethlisberger said. "That's big. The field position game is huge, especially in the playoffs. We will have to hope he has a bad day."

Scifres was a fifth-round pick in 2003, Bennett's final year in San Diego and Smith's first draft as Chargers GM.

"I thought Mike Scifres was one of the greatest talents that I had seen in my scouting career," Smith said. "I thought the physical attributes were there, incredible leg. I thought the potential was immense. He's been just unbelievable."

Scifres had practically the equivalent of a redshirt year as a rookie. He handled kickoffs in six games and was inactive in the other 10. Meanwhile, he picked up as much as he could from Bennett.

"A decision had to be made on that one that was a little bit different because of his ability at that time," Smith said. "We had a punter here, a good punter here, in Darren Bennett. I just felt we couldn't bypass this individual and wait down the road for another punter. I felt it had to happen immediately."

Bennett taught Scifres a drop punt used in Australian Rules Football. When he wants to stick a punt inside the 20 and increase the odds for a favorable bounce, Scifres drops the ball nose down and kicks the end of the ball.

The Chargers rave about how long Scifres' punts hang in the air.

"If I didn't have Mike out there, I wouldn't do half the stuff I'm able to do," said coverage ace Kassim Osgood. "He gives you so much time to be able to get down there and cover the ball."

Special teams coach Steve Crosby said Scifres' best hang time was 5.87 seconds on a 69-yard punt against Oakland three years ago. His best this season was 5.7 seconds on the 67-yarder against the Colts.

"Five seconds was always the benchmark," Bennett said. "People don't understand what a difference that extra second in the air makes. It's a massive difference. There's times where other punt returners will resign themselves to the fact Mike is hitting a high ball, so they'll call a fair catch the second it comes off his foot.

"So he's really become a massive weapon."

Kickoff for Sunday's game in Pittsburgh is scheduled for 1:45 p.m. PT.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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