The final big special-teams play of the Patriots' regular season came from LeGarrette Blount.
Right after the Bills scored a touchdown to draw within a touchdown with 10:20 remaining last Sunday, Blount returned a kickoff 62 yards to set up a field goal that again made it a two-score game.
In a season full of solid special-teams play, it was ironic that Blount -- who had people shaking their heads as he kept trotting out to return kicks early in the season -- had the last big return. It was a capstone. Really, Sunday was a capstone day for the special teams in general.
Between Blount’s two big kickoff returns, there were four field goals from Stephen Gostkowski that went off without a hitch. And in the chilly, day-long downpour, that was no small feat. Ryan Allen, the rookie punter who stepped in for Zoltan Mesko, got all those snaps down and punted effectively again. Julian Edelman, although he muffed a punt, completed an outstanding season as the returner. And the Patriots' kick-coverage teams allowed just 7.8 yards on punt returns and 20.8 yards on kickoff returns. The Patriots were 11th and 12th in the NFL in punt and kickoff return average. They were ninth and sixth in covering punts and kickoffs. Those hidden yards add up.
Tack on the critical special-teams plays made -- the recovered onside kick by Stephen Gostkowski against Cleveland, all the clutch kicks he made, and the punt coverage team that unnerved Wes Welker -- and this was one of the best special-teams seasons the Patriots have had in some time.
“I think Scott [O’Brien] and Joe Judge, our two special-teams coaches, have both worked extremely hard and diligently from the very beginning of the season, all the way back to our offseason workouts and OTAs and training camp and all through the year on the kicking game,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “Whether it be individual techniques with the specialists or other players on those units to schemes and coordination of things that [we] needed to execute in the kicking game, whether it’s double team blocks or the wedge in the returners or the vice on punt return or punt protection, whatever it happens to be. We’ve just continued to try to work on those things throughout the course of the year.
“We’ve had several different kickoff returners,” Belichick acknowledged. “We tried to start with Leon Washington and that really never materialized the way that we thought that it might. Then [we used] a number of other players, because [Washington] really was never able to do that for us. I think that the hard work and the perseverance of all those guys -- Joe, Scott, and the core special-teams players, the specialists – it’s paid off throughout the year in different areas. We’ve certainly seen it the last few weeks with big plays in many different areas of the kicking game; contributions of field position and points and turnovers and onside kicks. It’s just situational plays. You never know when some of those situational plays are going to happen but being able to execute them at critical times, like in the Cleveland game, it’s vital to being able to win in those situations. The field position that the kicking game can provide for us, whether it be for the defense or the offense is again, so critical to that unit’s success. It’s all tied in there together.”
We don’t need to revisit all the special-teams plays in NFL playoff history that have made a difference between championships and going home. Hard to imagine any team’s had more climactic ones than the Patriots, good (Snow Bowl, 2001 AFC Championship, 2003 Super Bowl) and not-so-good (2010 failed fake punt vs. the Jets). There’s no guarantee a key play will occur in the kicking game this postseason. But there’s a likelihood it will.