The Oakland-New England playoff game Saturday night figures to be an evenly played game. Special teams could play a major factor, but it's quite difficult to determine which team has a major edge there.
The most intriguing battle to keep an eye on may be the performances of the opposing punt coverage units. The Raiders have the AFC Pro Bowl punter in Shane Lechler, who averaged a league-best 46.2 yards per punt on the season. He pinned 23 of his 73 punts inside the 20, with 12 touchbacks. On the other side is New England's Ken Walter, who could well be the hottest punter in the league. His 40.1 average falls short of Lechler's, but the Patriots allowed a league-low return average of 4.8 yards per return.
Walter will need a strong performance this weekend, with the Raiders having either Tim Brown or Charles Woodson back to return. Both guys are very dangerous with the ball in their hands. Brown had an 88-yard touchdown return in the regular season and averaged 18.5 yards on his six returns. Woodson took his returns back an average of nearly 12 yards per touch.
"In saying that they are both big play guys, there really isn't much difference between their styles," Patriots gunner Je'Rod Cherry said. "They both have the ability to make good runs after they get the ball. If they break a tackle, they could take it to the house. You really can't say this guy is a straight-ahead guy and that guy is a juke guy."
The problem with preparing for Brown and Woodson is that neither guy handled the chores for much of the year. Oakland had David Dunn, but his problems holding on to the ball cost him a job. Woodson had just four returns in the regular season and had not had a return in his first three seasons in the league. While he may be a bit of an unknown as a return man, Cherry said the Patriots can't be over-aggressive in getting after him.
"We have to go down the field and cover the kicks with good discipline," Cherry said. "If we can get good leverage and do what we are supposed to do, we should be all right."
Weather no advantage
Much of the talk throughout the week focused on the weather and how it could affect the game. Most forecasts for Saturday night say there is a pretty good chance for snow, but no chance for rain. High temperatures are expected in the low 30s, with lows falling into the mid to low 20s.
While New England obviously has spent more time practicing and playing in colder conditions than the Raiders, the Patriots can't afford to take anything for granted. Center Damien Woody feels the atmosphere and magnitude of the game will prevent either side from claiming a weather-related edge.
"It might have an affect on them, but when it comes down to it, there is just too much at stake," Woody said. "Neither team is going to let that play into it as far as the outcome of the game. They are going to be ready to go regardless of what the weather is like."
Just a final reminder, Saturday's game is scheduled for an 8 p.m. EST kickoff. The game will be carried nationally on CBS… New England is 7-1 this season when they have a positive turnover ratio… Dating back to 1996 the Patriots have won three straight home playoff games.