ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA. – Three years ago the Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship thanks in large part to two special teams plays – a Troy Brown punt return for a touchdown and a blocked punt Brown pitched to Antwan Harris for another score. A week later Adam Vinatieri closed out New England's first world championship with a game-winning field goal as time expired.
Similarly, last year's Super Bowl ended on a Vinatieri field goal, one set up in part by a Carolina Panthers kickoff out of bounds that gave New England great field position to start its game-winning drive.
The lesson? Many big postseason games, especially in New England, generally involve big special teams plays. While offensive and defensive stars work beneath the bright lights of Super Bowl week, their special teams counterparts garner much less attention. Still, they know they are a key component of a winning team.
"You see the balance of it all," career special teamer Je'Rod Cherry said. "You have a good offense, special teams that compliment that, and a defense that compliments that. That's how you get into Super Bowls. You can't be weak in one area, because good teams that are strong in all three facets of the game will exploit that. You think back to Pittsburgh three years ago as a perfect example. We pretty much won that game with big special teams plays. It was two even teams, but one special teams unit, that day, was obviously better than the other one. And it showed up."
Sunday's Super Bowl XXXIX will feature four Pro Bowl special teams players in Vinatieri, Patriots specialist Larry Izzo and their counterparts in Eagles kicker David Akers and cover guy Ike Reese. It may just be a coincidence that the two best teams in the NFL also happen to put a strong emphasis on the third phase of the game, but it may not be.
"Obviously you'd like to think when you get to the Super Bowl the best teams are here. And when you talk about the best teams you are talking about overall abilities," said New England special teams coordinator Brad Seely. "So you are talking are about two pretty good special teams groups with good cover guys and obviously the two kickers with Adam and David being probably the best in the league this year."
That could make for interesting special teams events on the turf of ALLTEL Stadium this Sunday night. And while the groups do, to some degree, fit the common description of controlled chaos, Seely also emphasizes that there is plenty preparation that goes into the seemingly ad-libbed plays.
"It's very similar to offense and defense," Seely said. "We have a game plan just like they have a game plan. We are trying to match up our personnel against their personnel. I don't see much difference except there is more yardage involved in the plays."
And the Eagles group of personnel certainly presents a challenge.
"They have really good speed on their cover teams," Seely said. "So that's always difficult. Then you have to talk about David Akers being one of the best kickoff guys in the league. He kicks the ball deep with good hang time. With the speed they have that makes it tough. Then I think their punter [Dirk] Johnson has done a really nice job in these playoffs playing in bad weather and we'll see how he does when he gets a good weather situation because he's really punted the ball well for them here recently."
The Patriots also have to prepare for Pro Bowl all-purpose running back Brian Westbrook to return punts for the Eagles, a role he exploited to the tune of two touchdowns in 2003 before returning just two punts this season.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see him out there," Seely said. "The guy is a quality player and I am sure they have the same philosophy we do – if we can make a play we'll put whoever we have to out there. So I think they'll do that."
Just as important though, Seely is looking for his own punt return unit to possibly hit a big one, a feat that has eluded the group the last two seasons. While Brown had a couple of close calls over the last month of 2004, taking one to the house could change the complexion of Sunday's game.
"I think we are close," Seely said. "Unfortunately we never really got over the hump being as good as we'd like to be. But you have to give those guys who are back there returning a chance. Sometimes we blocked them pretty good and sometimes we didn't. Sometimes they did a good job of finding holes, sometimes they didn't. I think it's kind of a combination of everything with us having a lot of different personnel out there during the season and hopefully it will come together on Sunday."
Based on recent history, there is a good chance one of Seely's guys will have to step up for New England to bring home its third Lombardi Trophy in the last four seasons.