In the biggest game of the NFL season so far, the winning coach said the game wasn’t decided by superstars Peyton Manning , Marshawn Lynch or Richard Sherman . The MVP, Seattle coach Pete Carroll said, was punter Jon Ryan .
The unsung heroes of special teams took center stage around the NFL Sunday, with crucial field goals, punts that flipped field position and electrifying returns.
In the Super Bowl rematch between the Broncos and Seahawks , Ryan averaged 50.2 yards per kick and had five punts downed inside the Denver 20. After the Seahawks allowed a safety when Lynch was stopped in the end zone, Ryan’s free-kick punt from his 20 was caught by Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders at his 1. Yep, 79 yards.
“He had probably the best day of his career, I would think,” Carroll said of Ryan following a 26-20 overtime win. “The booming kicks, the great coverage that matched up with it, the gorgeous kick on the safety, it changed that whole opportunity right there.”
Sometimes, though, the guys doing the booting don’t get off those ridiculously long kicks. Washington’s Tress Way put his first kickoff at Philadelphia into the front of the end zone, where Chris Polk fielded it and took off. Way got a slight touch on Polk as he sped by for a 102-yard touchdown, the first for an Eagle at the Linc, and the first by any Philly player since 2008.
That made the game 7-7 — it finished 37-34 for the Eagles .
“We started the game fast, which was a point of emphasis,” said Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews , who had two touchdown catches. ” Chris Polk came out and put points up for us. They came out on a long drive and scored, so that was huge. It must have been a bit demoralizing for them to have a big drive and have us come right back and score on the next kickoff. Chris helped us, calmed us down and set us up.”
Coaches have little patience for kickers in general — unless they perform consistently the way Ryan has in nine pro seasons. Detroit released rookie placekicker Nate Freese on Monday. He missed a 41-yard field goal the previous day and was just 3 for 7 this year after being selected in the seventh round of the draft.
Usually not as damaging as missed three-pointers are short kickoffs. With the ball placed at the 35-yard line nowadays, and with weather not much of a factor, coaches expect kickoffs to soar deep into or through the end zone. When they don’t, well, danger awaits for the defending team, as the Redskins discovered.
Two field goals were blocked Sunday: Arizona got a 45-yarder by San Francisco’s Phil Dawson , one of the NFL’s best placekicker for more than a decade; and Baltimore’s Asa Jackson deflected a 36-yarder by Cleveland’s Billy Cundiff .
“I thought I hit a really good ball,” said Cundiff, whose miss was particularly critical in a 23-21 loss. “Then I heard the double thump. For a kicker, that’s one thing you do not want to hear.”
Many blocked field goals, while costing a team points, don’t directly wind up in points for other team. Blocked punts very often do, as occurred in Houston’s visit to the Meadowlands .
Damontre Moore got Shane Lechler’s kick to give the Giants the ball at the Houston 29. With a short field, Eli Manning and Daniel Fells then hooked up for a touchdown.
The Giants also had more time to set up a block attempt because they challenged Ryan Fitzpatrick’s run for a first down and won.
“Get a punt blocked, it’s not a formula for success,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien admitted.
Of course, most punts are taken from a team’s own territory, and virtually no field goal attempts are. So getting a piece of a punt can be more impactful.
Placekickers and punters are so good these days that weak performances are rare. If they continue — see Freese in Detroit — they quickly lead to unemployment because there are so many solid kickers who are out of work and ready to step in.
So maybe the best advice is to emulate Ryan. Or Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham , who has made a team-record 23 straight field goals.
Don’t miss and you don’t have to worry about your job.
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth and Tom Canavan contributed to this story.
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