Rich Hofmann: Playoffs mean showtime for Asante Samuel

Asante Samuel high-steps into the end zone with his second-quarter interception return.
Asante Samuel high-steps into the end zone with his second-quarter interception return.
Posted: January 05, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS - This is the National Football League playoffs, not the Olympic boxing tournament. When you evaluate a defense, you don't just count the body shots and award points based upon quantity. In this brutal business, in January most of all, it is the quality of the punches that matter. You cannot win if you cannot land a couple of big ones.

That is what Asante Samuel does.

It was a brutal game - very tough physically. The Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings pounded each other with blunt instruments for more than 3 hours. It is the expectation when you reach the playoffs, but this seemed even more physical - just rugged, will-testing football.

But that's the thing: You still need the lightning bolt to win the game. Two teams - two defenses, especially - beat each other senseless and rightfully take pride in the sheer physical will it takes to survive. But in the end, victory for a defense still demands something more, something greater, something special: a moment, a play, a grand and brash act.

In January, that is Samuel's specialty.

"That's the biggest time," he said after the Eagles' 26-14 victory over the Vikings. "That's what it's all about, the postseason and trying to get that big win. I just try to step my game up to another level every time I have an opportunity in the postseason. I helped my team out today and we got the victory."

In the second quarter, he intercepted an underthrown pass by Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. It was the Eagles' only touchdown of the game until the middle of the fourth quarter. It was his sixth career postseason interception and also his fourth returned for a touchdown. Samuel now owns the NFL record for interception return touchdowns in the playoffs, which used to be held by the Raiders' Willie Brown.

Ever-bashful, Samuel said, "It's awesome, and I've got the record, too, and that makes it even better. Hopefully that can help me get in the Hall of Fame."

He is not altogether healthy, fighting a hip thing that saw him yanked in and out of the game a couple of times yesterday. He says the hips just get out of alignment, or something, and that the pain comes and goes. It goes when you bring one back to the house.

He said, "You don't feel it for a little while when you do something like that. Your adrenalin is rushing. It's awesome."

It is why he was brought here, for big, brash plays. It is why the Eagles are going to pay him $57 million if he plays to the end of his 6-year contract. Their day against the Vikings was strained enough as it was as they nursed a 16-14 lead into the fourth quarter, before Brian Westbrook took a screen pass 71 yards for a touchdown. It would have been much more nervous without Samuel's return.

"You always think it's going to be a tough match and it might come down to the last play," he said. "You always want to try and make a big play for your team. Hopefully I can continue to do that . . .

"You've got the preseason, the regular season, the postseason and the Super Bowl. You've got to step your game up. The preseason, you take it another notch to the regular season, [then the] playoffs and so on. That's what I try to do."

Ask him and Samuel says, "It's definitely important: Pulling out the big ones shows the good signs of a champion." Then he says the Eagles have a "good team." Then he says they have a "real good team." Then he says, "I think we're dangerous. We've just got to see how it plays out."

Next come the New York Giants. Even though he is new to the NFC East, it will be the fifth time he has played them in the last 13 months - twice with New England last season and twice with the Eagles this season. The Super Bowl game provided the last big playoff moment before yesterday, and it was the game when Samuel did not cash in at the end, when he dropped the late interception that would have won the Patriots another Super Bowl. Instead, the Giants won.

"I guess I've faced them more than anybody," Samuel said. "It is what it is . . . A hard-nosed game. They're going to run the ball. They're going to take their shots. [Running back Brandon] Jacobs, if he's healthy, he's going to run the ball. So we have to go out there and execute our game plan."

And, in the end, somebody has to make a big play. And, as much as anybody can depend on anybody in the NFL in January, you can depend upon the audacity of Asante. *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

For recent columns go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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