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Ben Kotwica's Wild Card Special Teams Preview

Ben Kotwica's Wild Card Special Teams Preview

As we get into the playoff season, the details in each phase of the game become more important. In the special teams realm, as the stakes rise and the outdoor conditions get worse, the advantages of one team over the other in this phase become more and more pronounced. As we get into week 1 of “The Tournament,” we wanted to highlight some Special Teams matchups that will be worth watching this weekend.

Kansas City Chiefs (2) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (7)

The Steelers will bring the 23rd ranked offense to Arrowhead this weekend and if the Kansas City defense is able to force them to punt multiple times, especially backed up, look for the Chiefs to have the upper hand.  The Chiefs have one of the league’s most potent punt return games, ranking 3rd in punt return average (12.0 avg) while the Steelers have struggled to cover with the 26th ranked punt coverage team.  This discrepancy could play a pivotal role in this weekend’s game.  

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (7)

Tom Brady vs the Eagles once again as the Bucs will be hosting Philadelphia down in Tampa this weekend.  In this matchup, the kickers could play a major role in the outcome of the game.  My eyes go to the individual battle between two veterans, the Eagles' Jake Elliot and the Bucs' Ryan Succop.  Both veterans have been solid the year with the advantage going to Philadelphia where he has produced the 6th highest FG% at 90.9% while the Buccaneers have had some troubles connecting on only 80% of their FGs (25th in NFL).  In addition, Elliot is 3/3 on his field goals over 50 yards while Succop has missed his only 50+ attempt this year.  If this one comes down to a long field goal opportunity, the numbers this year suggest that Elliot could be the difference.

Dallas Cowboys (3) vs. San Francisco 49ers (6)

Let's take a trip down to Dallas for this week's matchup between the Cowboys and the 49ers. In the ST realm, the difference in this one appears to be in the kick off return game. The Cowboys have the NFL’s 5th best KR average while SF has struggled to cover kicks with the 23rd ranked kickoff coverage unit. With Tony Pollard back to return kicks, the Dallas ST unit can flash big play ability at any time.  This along with the questionable availability (Concussion) of the 49ers punter / kickoff guy Mitch Wishnowsky could lead to more returnable balls to the Cowboys and the league’s highest scoring special teams unit (21 points in 2021).

Los Angeles Rams (4) vs. Arizona Cardinals (5)

If this playoff matchup comes down to a one score game, with a FG on the line to either tie or win the game, it will be interesting to watch. The Rams are working with the Pro Bowl Kicker in Matt Gay, who is the 2nd ranked kicker in FG% (94.1%) behind only Justin Tucker. On the other sideline, the Cardinals are working with veteran Kicker Matt Prater. While Prater has been good down the stretch, he struggled throughout the season hitting only 81.1% of his FGs on the season, which is 24th in the NFL. Last time out, both kickers were 3/3. The difference lies with how they have performed from distance: 40+ yards. Prater has connected on only 60% of his kicks from 40-49 yards and 70% from 50+ while Gay has connected for 87.5% from 40-49 and 80% from 50+.

In arguably the NFL’s best weekend for football, the special teams phase of the game will play a pivotal role in the outcome for atleast one of these organizations.  With the margin for victory being so small, it will be exciting to see which ST unit gets the job done to help their team continue their path to the Lombardi!