After the Saints and Bengals squared off in the preseason earlier this season, the Saints' special teams leaders said they wanted to make the Pro Bowl together. Now, returning to Cincinnati four months later, Fred McAfee and Michael Lewis have accomplished their goal.
"Me and Freddie Mac are trying to go to the Pro Bowl, that's our main goal," Lewis told Wilkerson after the August 24 preseason game.
In addition to being cornerstones on the Saints' outstanding special teams, Lewis and McAfee have helped the Saints in their postseason-bound season with big plays.
In that preseason game, Michael Lewis returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown. The gap in coverage was set up by a key block by McAfee. In the regular season, McAfee and his teammates on the return teams have sprung Lewis loose for an NFL record in combined punt and kick return yardage. Before Sunday's game in Cincinnati, Lewis had 2133 combined yards, ready to break MarTay Jenkins' 2000 record of 2187 yards. Lewis tied the mark with a 12-yard punt return in the second quarter and broke it with a 10-yard punt return in the third quarter.
Lewis, whose much-heralded entrance into the league as a 29-year-old beer delivery man, seems as selfless about his role on the team as he could be. "That's my job to go out and put the offense in the best field position. I just tried to get everyone's momentum up. I feel real good about going down and making tackles as well. I want to help as much as I can help. My goal is to help this team."
Lewis and McAfee have combined for 19 solo special teams tackles. Alongside young special teams dynamos like James Allen, Melvin Mitchell and Roger Knight, the Saints have the the third-best punt return average, allowing only 4.9 yards per return before Sunday's game.
Among the other big plays, McAfee has picked up 11 yards on a fake punt attempt, blocked a punt attempt and forced a game-ending interception in the season-opener in Tampa Bay, blocked another punt, and sprung multiple key blocks for big returns by Lewis.
Lewis' big plays are more front page material, not the least of which is his emergence as a receiver on offense in special situations. Lewis had his biggest game of his career in Washington, when he had two catches for 70 yards including a 58-yard catch on a bomb. In that game he became the seventh player in NFL history to return both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. Against Cleveland, Lewis had three catches for 114 yards. He has also taken his one rushing attempt, on an end-around against San Francisco, for 15 yards.
Lewis scored again against the Vikings last week, keeping the Saints in the game with a 97-yard kickoff return. Because of Lewis' potency on return teams, teams have been trying to find ways to kick around him, and rarely kick to him on punts. On kickoffs, teams have been choosing to pooch or sky kick the ball to the blockers instead of kick it deep.
Both McAfee and Lewis will make their first Pro Bowl appearances in February, joining teammates Joe Horn and another first-time Pro Bowler Deuce McAllister.