Special teams provide hidden yards

NFL divisional playoffs highlight home-field and special teams as key advantages, Brian Biliick says.

As I watched the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, there were certain repetitive themes that seemed to play out in the majority of the four games. Saints-49ers proved to be the most entertaining game, but the other three games were just as telling for the remainder of the postseason.

Home-field advantage

Through the first seven playoff games this season, all home teams were victorious. Then came the exception to the rule, as the New York Giants beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

Winning a road game in the NFL is one of the hardest things a team has to do, and that is only amplified in the playoffs. Just ask the New Orleans Saints. Even with a Super Bowl championship under their belt, the Saints have yet to win a playoff game on the road in franchise history. All three of their regular-season losses this season came on the road.

People always ask me why playing at home is such an advantage, and it is much more than just having the support of your home crowd. In my opinion, home-field advantage is actually more about the away team's disadvantage than anything else.

This disadvantage actually starts a couple of days earlier than the game. When preparing for a Sunday road game, a team has to pack up its equipment after Friday's practice in order to have it delivered to the opposing team's stadium. This includes everything from medical equipment all the way down to individual player shoulder pads and helmets. It isn't really all that different than someone who travels for their profession and must plan out the week ahead so they are prepared to live out of a suitcase for the duration of their trip.

Then, just the change of routine can affect the way a player mentally and physically prepares for a game. Remember, players are creatures of habit and, in some cases, fully superstitious. There's a change in pregame meal, the commute to the stadium and, especially, a difference in the luxury of the away-team locker room as compared with what you grow accustomed to at home.

Then you have the disadvantages of the away team during the actual game: crowd noise, unfamiliarity with the stadium (knowing where the game clocks, play clocks, etc., are on the field) and unfamiliarity with the playing surface itself.

You heard this all week regarding the Saints' inability to play as fast on a grass surface as compared to the dome’s turf. Compare that with the pregame comments of Houston Texans running back Arian Foster suggesting he hated playing on field turf because he isn’t as comfortable with his footing when making cutbacks on the surface. You see that each team or individual player has preferences. Regardless, it comes down to the unfamiliarity of being on the road.

Turnover battle

The weekend started with an adrenaline-pumping game in San Francisco that literally came down to the last play. There were many storylines to come from that game, but even as the Saints made a valiant comeback, they simply weren’t going to win after losing the turnover battle by four.

With quarterback Drew Brees throwing two interceptions, coupled with the team's three lost fumbles, the Saints simply put themselves in too big of a hole to climb out. Sure, they found themselves with the lead with less than two minutes remaining in the game, but the football gods just won’t let a team with five turnovers win. It won't happen!

When you ask a coach to tell you the most telling stat in a game, the majority will tell you that whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game. This is typically true even if the differential favors a team by one, let alone four!

That held true for every game this weekend, except for in New England. The Denver Broncos turned the ball over only once, compared with the Patriots coughing it up twice. In the two games on Sunday, the turnover differential was substantial. In Baltimore, the Ravens took it away from the Texans four times and didn’t give it away even once. The same was true in Green Bay, with the Giants holding a plus-3 advantage over the Packers.

Not only does a turnover halt the current drive for an offense, it can suck the momentum right out of a team.

In the case of the 49ers, a turnover caused by Donte Whitner on the very first defensive possession set the tone for the remainder of the game on Saturday. The Saints were threatening to score, but Whitner jarred the ball loose at the 2-yard line on a bone-crushing hit on Pierre Thomas that actually sidelined him for the rest of the day.

In the case of the Ravens, the offense was struggling to find a rhythm and, after a three-and-out, punted the ball back to the Texans. Jacoby Jones muffed the catch and gave the Ravens the ball on the 2-yard line and an easy score for a Ravens offense that up to that point was struggling to even gain a first down.

Great punt teams

It is the often-overlooked third phase of the game, but special-teams play can be just as important as any offensive or defensive series. These plays determine the hidden yardage of a game that has a major impact on the strategy of the entire game.

The 49ers and the Ravens boast the best defenses in the playoff field, and they set the tone with their special teams. All year, the 49ers have benefited from the booming punts of Andy Lee. Even if their offense is backed up deep in their own territory, they can rely on Lee to gain back that hidden yardage by hitting one of his 70-yarders that gives the defense much more room.

When punting from your own end zone, any time you can get it out past the 50-yard line, it is considered a win, but with Lee, the 49ers can literally push the opposition back to their own 30-yard line consistently. Those are yards you don’t find on the box score, and they can be the deciding factor for a team that wins mainly by running the ball and playing good defense.

For the Ravens, they also have an excellent punter in Sam Koch, but it is their coverage units that are so impressive to me. I can’t recall one time on Sunday in which Jones had any room to move vertically up the field after catching a punt. You can have the best punter in the league, who consistently hits 50- to 60-yarders, but if you can’t get down the field and cover up the returner, it won’t make any bit of difference.

The net yardage is, obviously, more important than the distance the ball actually travels in the air. During the regular season, Koch’s average punt was 46.5 yards with a net of 38.6, but on Sunday he averaged 49.3 with a net of 44.4 yards. Those nearly six yards may not seem significant, but that is basically one additional first down an offense must achieve on every drive.

In Koch’s case, he punted the ball nine times on Sunday, and with the increased net average of six yards, he saved his team 54 yards that won’t show up anywhere on a stat sheet but could have been the difference in the game.

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