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One of the more overlooked facets of football are the special teams units and in my opinion they are going to play a huge role in who raises the Lamar Hunt trophy on Sunday. Starting with the obvious, Darren Sproles is trouble as a returner but New England boasts one of the best kick coverage units in the league and they’ve got a pretty good (underrated) kick returner in Ellis Hobbs.
The Patriots were 10th in the league in average return yards, holding opponents to just 22.1 yards per return, with only one going for a touchdown. They also led the league in kickoffs with 112, 19 more than second place Dallas.
New England ranks first in the league in opponent field position with Patriots opponents getting the ball on their own 27.1-yard line, on average.
On the other side of the ball the Patriots ranked fifth in the NFL in kickoff returns averaging 24.7 yards per return and bringing two back for touchdowns.
New England ranks eighth in average starting position on offense getting the ball at their 32.3-yard line. Of the six AFC playoff teams only Pittsburgh and Tennessee ranked higher than the Patriots, with a starting position .2 yards further up the field.
A lot of sports writers, talk show hosts and bloggers will say that statistics don’t mean anything in football and that you can always seem to make them say what you want them to if you highlight the right categories. However field position is a statistic that does not lie. If you stop an opponent on the 15-yard line they still have to go 85 yards to score a touchdown.
On average opponents have to go 5.2 yards further per drive in order to score, whether that’s a touchdown or a field goal. On the other hand, one of the worst things teams can do is allow Tom Brady a short field. New England has forced it’s fair share of turnovers and so has San Diego but the majority of times you are getting the ball it’s on a punt or a kickoff.
New England has been able to contain explosive returners like Josh Cribbs, Leon Washington and Ted Ginn Jr. If they can contain Darren Sproles and Antonio Cromartie it will go a long way in helping the defense contain LT and company.
The good news for the Patriot offense is that Ellis Hobbs ranked eighth in the league in kick return average and took a kick off back for an NFL record 108-yard touchdown. Brady is deadly no matter what the situation and having Ellis Hobbs and Wes Welker returning punts and kicks on a day that will have the wind whipping through the Razor field position is going to be huge.
The kicking game may feel the effects of the cold and wind more than the offense or defense but again the Pats are strong throughout.
Despite kicking a league low 44 punts, Chris Hanson pinned opposing offenses inside their 20-yard line 13 times, including five times inside the 10-yard line and six touchbacks. New England’s punt coverage teams also held opposing return men to just 5.4 yards per return, the second lowest return average in the NFL behind Buffalo’s 5.3 yards per return. Kickoffs have been equally impressive for New England this season. 38 times this season Stephen Gostowski has kicked the ball into the opponent’s end zone resulting in 15 touchbacks and forcing opponents to move the ball further in order to score.
Gostowksi also led the league in extra points making all 74 that he attempted and adding 21 field goals for 137 points, second behind only the Green Bay Packers’ Mason Crosby who finished the season with 141. Gostowski was third overall in points scored behind Crosby and Randy Moss.
In a week where both teams offenses and defense are being compared at length, the outcome of the game may very well be decided by a special teams play and either team could be the one to make that play.
If you’re a Pats fan the abilities of Sproles and Cromartie definitely make you a little bit nervous but it will help that New England won’t be overlooking that portion of the game. Obviously the Patriots are led on special teams by veteran Larry Izzo but Kelley Washington has made some game changing plays as well.
If New England can contain Cromartie and Sproles, and force the Chargers to move the ball 75, or 80 yards to get to the end zone they’ll have a much easier path to Arizona. If the Patriots special teams give the Chargers short fields on Sunday the holes in the Patriots defense could prove disastrous.
Luckily for New England they have Bill Belichick on the sidelines, who won’t let them forget how important the third phase of the game is to their quest for 19-0.