Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
On Monday night, a national audience saw what people in Buffalo and Minnesota have known for a while: Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield is one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
Winfield has never made a Pro Bowl, primarily because of low interception totals during a 10-year career with the Bills and Vikings. But he displayed the full array of his skills in Minnesota's 30-27 victory over New Orleans, helping to shut down the Saints' running attack while also making two of the game's biggest plays.
Although he is 5-foot-9 (on his toes) and 180 pounds, Winfield plays run defense like a linebacker. High school coaches could make a teaching video with his tackling form, which Winfield credits to a lifetime of playing defensive back. Monday night, that form paid off with three tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
He stopped Saints tailback Deuce McAllister for a 1-yard loss in the second quarter and twice dropped Reggie Bush for negative yardage in the fourth. Winfield also prevented what probably would have been a touchdown by knifing through a wall of offensive linemen to bring down Aaron Steckar on a screen pass.
Of course, those plays merely complemented the two game-changers he turned in: Returning a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the first quarter and setting up another score by swiping the ball from Saints quarterback Drew Brees on a second-quarter sack.
The former was a case of standing in a lucky spot. But the latter represented the second time this season Winfield has blitzed and stripped the quarterback of the ball on the way to the ground. The first time, Sept. 21 against Carolina, he hopped up and dashed 19 yards for a touchdown. Monday night, Winfield made it to the Saints' 9-yard line before being tackled.
Not coincidentally, those are the two games the Vikings have won this season. Perhaps they finally will catapult Winfield to post-season honors regardless of his interception totals. (He has one so far in 2008 and has never intercepted more than four passes in a season.)
It's not as if Winfield's resume is blank. As a senior at Ohio State in 1998, he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. The Bills took him in the first round of the 1999 draft, and he signed a six-year, $34.8 million contract with the Vikings in 2004.
He has steadily improved his pass coverage, and this season opponents have targeted teammate Cedric Griffin rather than challenge him. Yes, it appears that in the 10th year of his career, Antoine Winfield might finally be getting his due.