XLVI Preview: Special teams

We’ve broken down all layers of offense and defense when it comes to the matchups that lie ahead in Super Bowl XLVI. And although it’s a myth that special teams special teams are one-third of the game, it is a fact that crucial special teams plays are a big reason why the Giants got past the 49ers and the Patriots survived the Ravens to get to where they are right now.

So, let’s complete our due diligence and break it down.

Kickers

Lawrence Tynes (Giants): Twice in four years now Tynes has made a game-winning kick in overtime to send the Giants to the Super Bowl. What many might not remember is that Tynes missed two potential game-winners earlier in that 2007 tilt with Green Bay, including a 36-yarder with no time left on the clock. So despite the big-time overtime kicks, Tynes still scares Giants fans. He’s already missed twice in these playoffs from 40 yards or less (one was blocked) and he made only four of eight attempts from beyond 39 yards during a regular season marred a bit by injury. His overall percentage of 79 was below the league average.

Stephen Gostkowski (Patriots): He hasn’t actually been asked to make many big kicks of late (his two field goals against the Ravens were from inside of 30 yards), but Gostkowski has only missed one kick since Week 12…and that was from 51 yards out, in New England, in December. He’s simply one of the most consistent kickers in the league, and he’s been above the league average four of the last five years. He’s less of a liability than Tynes is on gimmes, and he’s also been better from long range.

Punters

Steve Weatherford (Giants): The veteran had a career year after supplanting golden boy (is it possible to be a golden boy punter?) and scapegoat Matt Dodge in training camp. All year long he was solid, not spectacular. He’s held steady in the playoffs, and has the second-most punts inside the 20-yard line among playoff punters. He did a fantastic job in a punt-riddled matchup with Andy Lee and the 49ers last weekend.

Zoltan Mesko (Patriots): Believe it or not, Mesko hasn’t even been the best punter on his own team in terms of average these playoffs. That distinction goes to Tom Brady, who had a 48-yarder on a bit of a lark in the divisional playoffs. A fifth-round pick in 2010, Mesko lived up to high expectations during the 2011 regular season by posting the third-highest net average in the league. But his numbers have dropped a bit on a small sample size in these playoffs. Mesko’s good, but he’s not a game-changer at this early stage of his career.

Returners

Although New England’s Danny Woodhead has looked good on kick returns in the playoffs, neither team really has an edge in that category. Both failed to take a kickoff to the house during the regular season, and Jerrel Jernigan and Devin Thomas have been just as good as Woodhead and Julian Edelman.

But the Pats have been much better on punt returns, with an average that is four yards better than New York’s. They also scored a touchdown on a punt return (Edelman in Week 11 against the Chiefs), and had two 20-yarders (the Giants had none). I’ll go with Edelman, who also took one to the house against the Dolphins in 2010, and Wes Welker over Aaron Ross and Will Blackmon.

Coverage/intangibles 

I guess the most important thing to mention here is that the Giants forced (or at least recovered) two fumbles on special teams in the NFC championship game against San Francisco, with the unheralded Jacquian Williams and Devin Thomas making huge plays. And that’s important, because Edelman has fumbled three teams on returns this year, losing one.

Edge: Patriots.

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