NEW ORLEANS (Feb. 2, 2002) -- Special teams carried the New England Patriots to their third AFC championship last Sunday.
Not Tom Brady's arm or the impressive relief work of Drew Bledsoe, for that matter. Not Antowain Smith's running. Not Bill Belichick's defensive scheming.
The Patriots are in Super Bowl XXXVI because their special teams produced two touchdowns, or one more than they got on offense. They are here because Troy Brown weaved through a whole bunch of Pittsburgh Steelers for a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown. They are here because Brandon Mitchell blocked a field-goal attempt, Brown picked up the ball and pitched it to Antwan Harris, who raced 49 yards to the end zone.
Although it is uncommon for one team to score two special-teams touchdowns in a game, exceptional play by the Patriots' kicking units is nothing new. And if there is one area in Sunday's game where the heavily favored St. Louis Rams don't have an edge, it is special teams.
This is not to suggest that is a weak area for the Rams. Hardly. They have a great kicker in Jeff Wilkins and a solid punter in John Baker, but have had to replace fumble-prone return men Az-Zahir Hakim and Trung Canidate with dangerous Dre' Bly and Yo Murphy. But compared to their super-charged offense and greatly improved defense, special teams rank a distant third on the Rams, as they do on most NFL teams.
They carry much greater weight on the Patriots. Brown, who has developed into a top playmaker at wide receiver, is one of the best punt returners in the game. During the regular season, he led the league with a 14.2-yard average and returned two punts for touchdowns. Adam Vinatieri is a highly dependable kicker -- who will ever forget his tying and winning field goals in the snow in the divisional-round win over the Raiders? -- and the Patriots allowed a league-low 4.8 yards per punt return.
"I think we have an edge," Harris says. "I don't know how other teams prepare for special teams, but we prepare our special teams like it's offense or defense. We study film constantly. We practice hard. We make sure that things are correct either on that play or that blocking scheme before we go to the next thing.
"With Bill Belichick, you're not going to go out there and slack on special teams, thinking you're going to go straight to offense and defense. If you can't play special teams on this team, and you're not excelling, then you're not going to play offense or defense."
Both the Patriots' and Rams' special teams were struggling when the teams met during Week 10 of the regular season. Both have improved since.
The Pats' problems were similar to those that confront most clubs on special teams -- the transition of several newcomers replacing players lost through free agency or salary-cap casualties. By the second half of the season, members of New England's special teams had become more comfortable with one another and began playing as a group rather than as individuals trying to make plays.
Brad Seely, the Patriots' special teams coach, receives the bulk of the credit for the turnaround.
"Brad is a hell of a coach," Pats special-teams ace Larry Izzo says. "All year long, he's kept us focused. Early in the year, when we were struggling, he knew that we were not playing as well as we could and he kept harping on us and he created situations to where we could make plays. He knows our strengths and he feeds off of those and builds off of those and puts us in position to make plays."
"We're going to try to make sure everybody's accountable, everybody's responsible," Seely says. "If you make a mistake, you're letting down ten other guys out there. You're not letting down just yourself or one person. It's a whole team thing. It's important that our players understand, 'We're doing this to help our team win the game.'"
The Patriots also have no shortage of talent on special teams, including five starters in Brown, free safety Tebucky Jones, and linebackers Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Roman Phifer. Izzo, Harris, Je'Rod Cherry, Matt Chatham, and Patrick Pass provide a strong core of backups who consistently are willing to sacrifice their bodies to make big plays.
"We have committed guys, guys that know their role," Harris says. "We want to score touchdowns on special teams so we can dance. Everybody wants to dance. We want to have the glory."
Jones, a fourth-year NFL veteran, is one of the league's top "gunners" on punt coverage. He is big (6-foot-2, 218 pounds), strong, fast (4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash), and fearless.
"He's got long arms, so guys have a hard time doubling out there on the edge because he is so fast and he is so strong," Seely says. "He's one of those guys that's freakish by nature. And the great thing about Bill Belichick is if [Jones] is tired, we'll take him out on third down. But he's going to play on fourth down."
The Patriots have a healthy respect for the St. Louis special teams. They are especially concerned with the ability of the Rams' kickers to get good hang time, thus allowing their cover men, the best of whom are O.J. Brigance and Mark Fields, time to get downfield and make plays. Like Brown, Bly and Hakim are constant threats to go the distance on punt returns.
"You watch that tape from [the NFC Championship Game] last week against Philadelphia, which has one of the best special teams groups in the league, but the Rams dominated," Izzo says. "They're probably sitting there thinking they have an edge, too."
Actually, they are.
"I think at this point, the way we've improved, we can go toe-to-toe with them," Rams special teams coach and New Orleans native Bobby April says. "We're not looking for a tie. We're looking to win that area. I'm not trying to sound like a wrestler, predicting anything. But when we cover a kick, we're not going down there to tie with them or to get a draw or to just neutralize them. We have to win. We have to have that mentality that we're going to win and we're going to be aggressive. Same way when we return a kick.
"Everything we do, we're going out to beat them. Granted, they've done a great job. They have a great program; they have a great system. Their coaches are to be commended. Their players are to be commended. But we also have improved, and we plan on doing well and winning that area."