-- Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed hesitated ever so slightly deep in the end zone after he intercepted LaMont Jordan's ill-fated halfback option pass during the Ravens' overtime victory over the New York Jets last Sunday. He thought about taking a touchback -- the safe thing to do -- but decided to return it, and, naturally, he took it to the other end zone, darting between players.

The touchdown was waved off and the return was shortened to 78 yards because of a penalty, but the play changed the game and helped the Ravens to their sixth victory.

"By all rights, Ed shouldn't have brought that thing out," Baltimore Coach Brian Billick said the day after. "Sometimes you just do those things and Ed has a knack for it."

"He has that return ability," Ravens secondary coach Johnnie Lynn said. "He turns all those no-no-no's into go-go-go's."

Those kind of plays have become somewhat routine for Reed, who has been perhaps the best player on the league's fourth-ranked defense. He has made crucial, game-changing plays in three of the Ravens' last four wins. In a 17-10 victory at Washington on Oct. 10, Reed sacked Mark Brunell and forced a fumble that he returned 22 yards for a touchdown, which sparked the Ravens' comeback from a 10-point halftime deficit.

Against Cleveland on Nov. 7, Reed made a shoestring interception of a Jeff Garcia pass in the end zone, then returned it an NFL-record 106 yards for a touchdown in the final seconds that sealed the Ravens' 27-13 win. Then, of course, there was the momentum-changing interception against the Jets, which set up a touchdown pass by Kyle Boller.

"He's just a magnet right now. . . . Plays are coming to him," Lynn said. "What he's doing is seizing an opportunity and making a play. Like the play versus Washington against the quarterback: It was a chance to blitz, but he wasn't just satisfied with getting a sack -- he was going to get the ball out. He got the ball out, now he's got to find the ball, scoop it and run."

Reed is second in the NFL with five interceptions. Throwing an interception to Reed is doubly dangerous because of what he does after the catch; in the past two weeks, he has 184 yards worth of interception returns -- more than 25 NFL teams have this season. Reed has a total of 288 yards on interception returns this season -- a franchise record -- and he needs only 62 more to break Charlie McNeil's record of 349 yards, which McNeil set in 1961 with San Diego.

Reed has been a playmaker since the Ravens took him with the 24th overall pick out of the University of Miami in the 2002 draft. In 41 career games, Reed has 17 interceptions, 4 blocked punts (three of which he has returned for touchdowns) and 4 sacks. Opposing teams certainly have to account for where Reed is on the field.

"It's tough, with a safety," Billick said. "If it's a corner, you say, okay, I'm not going to throw over there. If it's a dominant defensive end, we're going to double that guy or we're not going to run over there. With a safety, and the way we move him around, it's harder to isolate and say, we're going to stay away from Ed Reed."

So teams try to fool Reed by giving him false reads or by pump-faking one way and then going another, Lynn said. That's difficult to do, because it's hard to know where Reed -- who can play both free and strong safety -- is going to line up.

"You say hey, he studies film, so we might be able to give him a false read and give him something else," Lynn said. "But sometimes he has a feel [that] it just doesn't look right. It just doesn't look right, so he doesn't go off that read, which is excellent for him. He has that counterbalance where [he recognizes that] what they're doing is not right, so he ends up being in the right spot."

Reed has accumulated more yards on interception returns than any Ravens receiver has gained on catches (Randy Hymes has a team-high 249 receiving yards). His two touchdowns tie him for third, behind running back Jamal Lewis (five) and rookie kick returner B.J. Sams (three).

Reed played quarterback, running back and wide receiver for his high school team in St. Rose, La., and he smiled knowingly when a reporter mentioned that he seems to know what to do once he gets the ball in his hands.

"You keep giving the glory and the glamour to the offensive guys," Reed said. "We'll keep sneaking on from behind."

Ravens Notes: The Ravens signed punter Nick Murphy to fill in for Dave Zastudil, who will be sidelined three to four weeks with an injured shoulder. Murphy led NFL Europe in punting average the past two seasons. . . .

Cornerback Chris McAlister's availability for Sunday will be a game-time decision, Billick said. McAlister, who left the Jets game with a pinched nerve , said that he no longer has pain in his shoulder, but that he has to wait to see if his muscles and tendons are strong enough to play.

Zastudil is the only player listed as out for Sunday's game. Tight end Todd Heap (ankle), left tackle Jonathan Ogden (hamstring), cornerback Deion Sanders (foot) and McAlister are listed as questionable. Ogden was the only one of that group to practice Wednesday. . . .

Quarterback Anthony Wright, who has been recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, has been activated from the physically unable to perform list. The Ravens placed fullback Ovie Mughelli (hamstring) on injured reserve to make room.