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Patriots ready to be Super special

Special teams can be key in big, close games. The Patriots third phase is ready to make an impact.

It's the final third of the game, but doesn't get nearly the hype that comes on offense and defense. In fact, unless there is a game-winning field goal – see Vinatieri, Adam – or some other huge play, special teams doesn't get a lot of attention leading up to the Super Bowl.

But that doesn't mean that Scott O'Brien and his kicking game pupils aren't doing just as much work to be ready for the biggest game of their lives on Sunday.

A couple weeks after both conference title games were decided in large part by plays on special teams, O'Brien's crew is making sure it leaves no stone unturned in this two-week lead up to Super Bowl XLVI.

"I really feel confident in our group right now," New England special teams captainMatthew Slater said. "We really have a lot of experience across the board. Just talking with our guys, I know we're ready. It's going to be a challenge for us because they have a lot of good players over there, and they've been playing really well. But we feel up for the challenge. We feel like we're doing the right things to put ourselves in position to have success on Sunday."

One thing that shouldn't be a problem is energy. While there is certainly scheme and game plan to be taken into account in the kicking game, special teams is a lot about simple want to.

If you can't get hyped up to cover a kick in the Super Bowl…

"Then you shouldn't be playing!," Slater responded with his eyes lit up. "We'll definitely have the juice. And they'll have the juice too. It's the Super Bowl. But I think in the end it is going to come down to us playing our technique, even though it doesn't look there's much technique on special teams, and us playing disciplined as far as the scheme is concerned. Like I said, these guys are playing really well this time of year. The last game they had, special teams won them the game. So we realize that we're in for a huge challenge."

One area that can be a major impact in the Super Bowl is the return game. The Patriots lost Super Bowl XXXI thanks in part to a Desmond Howard kickoff return for a Green Bay touchdown. A couple years ago Devin Hester opened the big game with a big return for a score.

New England's kick return game has been lackluster for most of the year. But Danny Woodhead showed some spark in that area in the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, though one ended with a lost fumble.

That effort, and the learning that's gone on for the kick return unit all year, has a building confidence in that area for the Patriots. Part of the growth process, according to O'Brien, is that Woodhead has been learning on the job as New England's lead kickoff return man.

"I think from the beginning it's always been a tough situation with young guys. Even though they are talented and they have what you are looking for, there is still a lot to it when they don't have the experience as far as setting up blocks, reading the second level of coverage, things like that," O'Brien said. "With Danny the progression has been there. It was unfortunate that he lost the ball (against Baltimore). He never even saw the guy.

"But he's starting to see it the way he needs to see it. It's completely different than being a running back running behind the line, because there are two levels of coverage that you are dealing with. You are dealing with the guys in front of you and then the guys that are the second wave. His production has gotten better but his experience has grown. He's starting to react to things a lot quicker because he's seeing them quicker."

The Patriots as a team averaged just 21.6 yards per kickoff return on the season. Woodhead averaged 21.9 on his 20 returns over the year, while Julian Edelman was a bit better at 23.7 on his 12 returns. New England's longest return of the year was just 37 yards.

In a pair of postseason games Woodhead has four returns with a 32.3-yard average, with a long of 41.

The Giants held opponents to just a 22.9-yard average on kickoff returns during the regular season, and didn't allow a return longer than 42 yards.

Edelman & Co. are ready to have an impact. And it would come at no better time.

"Always," Edelman said. "That's our goal as a unit is to go out there and make a play. Special teams is one-third of the game. As people have seen these last few weeks, it can either make or break you. We're very aware of that. We're putting as much time into special teams this week as any other phase of the game because that's how serious we take it. We're looking forward to the opportunity of going out there and performing."

"We emphasized that all year," Slater said of the kickoff return game in particular, "and obviously the production is not up to the standard we have set for ourselves through the course of the season but here in the postseason we've just been telling the guys to keep believing, stick to our scheme, stick to our technique, go back to the basics and we started to see some results last week. Danny and Julian and those guys have done a good job all year long. They are really comfortable back there. They're really comfortable in their reads.

"Hopefully we can make a play or two this game to help our offense out and help the field position game."

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