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The forgotten factor

Kris Jenkins and Richard Seymour. Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme. Ty Law and Ricky Manning Jr. These are the faces of Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Sure Rod Smart has earned fame from his "He Hate Me" nickname established during his days in the XFL, but Smart loves to return kickoffs for the NFC Champion Panthers and even took one 100 yards for a score against the Saints back in October. The special teamers, like Smart, that will play a major role in the outcome of Sunday's game have flown under the radar this week as they typically do.

But in a game that features two strong defenses ranked in the league's top 10 and two conservative offenses that are ranked 16th (Carolina) and 17th (New England), special teams could be the determining factor. Field position and big plays in the kicking game can spark one team to a championship.

The teams are both strong in the kicking game. New England led the AFC and finished second in the NFL in average drive start following a kickoff (32.8) while Carolina was sixth in that category, its average drive starting at its own 30.

The kick coverage teams have identical stats, allowing opponents an average drive start of the 27.2 following a kickoff, which tied for sixth best in the league.

Bethel Johnson led the AFC in kickoff returning while Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun led the NFC in gross average. Steve Smith returned a punt for a touchdown and Rod Smart a kickoff for a score. Johnson took one back 92 yards for New England.

Bill Belichick calls the two special teams coaches – Brad Seely for New England and Scott O'Brien for the Panthers – two of the best he's ever seen and worked with.

It all makes for another interesting matchup and one the Patriots have spent time studying to find an edge, which apparently is tough to find.

"I think you start with their kickoff return and Rod Smart is a big, physical, strong guy that has done a great job for them and an even better job in the playoffs," Seely said. "A lot of it comes down to tackling. You have to be good tacklers against him because he's so physical.

"They've also used Steve Smith back there at times and I wouldn't be surprised to see him back there this week because of the game's obvious importance. He's faster, maybe not as big as Smart, but he can break tackles as well and once he gets to the outside … you don't want to make it a track meet because that guy's fast."

Tackling and kick coverage were not problems for the Patriots all season, but became an issue of late. New England allowed nine 30-plus-yard kickoff returns during the regular season, but then allowed three in the playoffs and a 75-yard return in the season finale against Buffalo. The Patriots also allowed only three 30-plus-yard punt returns during the season, but that includes a 57-yarder for a touchdown against Denver.

"We've talked about tackling this week," Seely said. "We have to be better tacklers. We have to do a better job of wrapping up and finishing them. We had a leverage error last game and we missed a couple of tackles."

Placing emphasis on the fundamentals should alleviate the problem since it hasn't been an issue for most of the year.

"We've been consistent all year covering kicks," Patriots special teams ace Larry Izzo said. "Last game we had a couple of long returns and we missed some tackles. But Brad Seely has done a great job of getting guys to understand how they fit into the coverage. Since I've been here, I thought it was our most consistent year.

"Smart's been doing a good job for them," Izzo added. "He has great vision, he's a physical runner and he has good speed. Smith is a guy I like to compare to Santana Moss. He's explosive and breaks a lot of tackles and has speed. If you give him a little bit of daylight, he'll be in the end zone."

On the other side, New England's Johnson and Troy Brown present a dangerous return tandem in their own right. New England had nine 30-plus-yard kickoff returns with five of those nine –plus-50-yard returns by Johnson. They have yet to hit a big play in the punt return game with only two for more than 20 yards, but Brown's ability is not in question and his 10.1-yard average is solid, especially considering he hasn't broken off a long return this season.

"Each week we've tried to get that started," Izzo said of the Patriots punt returns. "We had one long one against Tennessee that got called back and I think that could have sparked us. We need to improve and that is going to be big this week. But with Bethel back there returning kicks, he's dangerous and we feel that if we get a hat on a hat, we like our chances."

The Panthers won't likely avoid Johnson the way the Colts did in the AFC Championship because they believe in their strong coverage team. "I think they have a lot of confidence because they have very good coverage players," Seely said. "Everybody they've played against, they've kicked the ball down the field and I would think they'll kick the ball down the field against us and see if we can return it."

Sauerbrun may be the league's best punter when it comes to getting the ball down the field. He has a strong leg, but if he line drives a long one, it could give the Patriots an opportunity for a big return.

"He doesn't hit many of those or he wouldn't be going to the Pro Bowl," Brown said. "All the guys on their special teams have been playing real well this year. Their coverage teams are way above average. They have so much talent and [Jarrod] Cooper sticks out like a sore thumb in coverage. He's real good."

The Patriots don't plan to do anything out of the ordinary to account for the booming punts Sauerbrun gets off. "He'll kick it a long ways, but that doesn't change our thinking."

As good as Sauerbrun has been, the Panthers did get three punts blocked this season, including two in the season finale against the Giants while also allowing an 89-yard punt return for a score in Week 16 against the Lions in a game where the Panthers cruised to victory while resting some of their top players.

His big leg gives the Panthers a field position advantage when punting from their own end because he can single-handedly alter the field position unlike Ken Walter, who is a placement kicker who seldom hits the ball even 40 yards.

Walter's gross average is nearly seven full yards shorter than Sauerbrun, but Walter had 28 punts downed inside the 20 with only three touchbacks while Sauerbrun had 22 downed inside the 20 with nine touchbacks.

Since Walter can't change field position when kicking from inside his 40, the onus will fall on the Patriots offense to stay out of three-and-out situations when starting deep in their own end. Walter is at his best when kicking from around midfield.

"They're solid and well-coached," Seely said. "They present you challenges because they're personnel is very good and they know what they're doing."

So while the game's stars garner the pregame headlines, don't be surprised to see a special teamer steal the postgame spotlight.

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