NFL

Special teams could prove pivotal in Super Bowl

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MIAMI (AP)

When it comes to making an impact on special teams in the Super Bowl, Reggie Bush is thinking small.

Sure, the New Orleans Saints' punt returner would love to bust a long one. And it could happen - despite a disappointing season on runbacks, Bush has been chosen NFC special teams player of the week twice in his career, and he's the Saints' all-time leader with four returns for touchdowns.

But he figures he doesn't need a big runback to contribute Sunday when the Saints play the Indianapolis Colts.

``In this type of game, field position is everything,'' Bush said. ``I can do a great job at giving our offense a short field to work with. And sometimes a fair catch can be a win, too. If I don't catch the ball and it bounces back another 10 or 15 yards, that can end up hurting you. So fair-catching isn't so bad in this kind of game.''

While the high-powered offenses of the Colts and Saints receive the hype, special teams - even a fair catch - could prove pivotal. That was the case in the NFC championship game, when the Saints' Garrett Hartley kicked a 40-yard field goal in overtime to beat Minnesota.

And it has often been the case for the Colts, who won seven games by four points or less en route to a 14-0 start.

``Special teams can be the difference in winning and losing in this game,'' Bush said. ``Giving either one of these offenses a short field is dangerous. Obviously, we would love to give our offense a short field, and if we can keep them on the longer field, that could be the difference.''

In most phases of special teams, the Colts and Saints appear evenly matched. They're both in the top 10 in the league in kickoffs, both slightly better than average in punting and both near the bottom in punt returns. The Saints have the better kickoff returner in Courtney Roby, who ranked fifth in the league with an average of 27.5 yards per runback and busted one 97 yards for a score.

But the biggest contrast is in place-kickers. Hartley is 23, while the Colts' 42-year-old Matt Stover will be the oldest player to take part in a Super Bowl.

``I guess you've got to be a kicker to do it,'' Stover said with a laugh. ``It's a wild moment in my life.''

Stover kicked for the Cleveland Browns-Baltimore Ravens franchise from 1991 to 2008. He won a Super Bowl ring in the 2000 season and ranks No. 4 among kickers with 2,004 career points.

The Ravens released him last offseason, and he signed with the Colts in October to replace Adam Vinatieri, sidelined by a right knee injury.

``This team looked through the age and saw my ability,'' Stover said.

Since joining the Colts, Stover is 14 for 16 on field goals, including 5 for 5 in two playoffs games. Even after 19 NFL seasons, he said, the job still involves plenty of pressure.

``If you've ever had a 10-foot putt for $100 with a close friend, multiply that by 1,000, and that's what it's like,'' he said.

Hartley experienced pressure like never before on the final play of the NFC title game. He figures it will help him on kicks to come.

``I'm going to hold onto the feeling before that kick, so if I'm put in that situation again I'll know what it feels like,'' he said.

The field goal sent the Saints to the Super Bowl for the first time and transformed the 5-foot-8 Hartley into a hero in New Orleans. More than once since, he has turned down an offer to pay his meal tab.

``People are nice enough to offer at some restaurants,'' he said. ``But I want to pay for my own meal. I'm still the same person. Sometimes I'll even offer to buy them lunch instead.''

The Saints had been hampered by persistent kicking problems before they signed Hartley in October 2008. The rookie from Oklahoma made all 13 of his field goal tries that year.

Then last summer, he tested positive for use of a banned stimulant and was suspended for the first four games of the season. Hartley said the stimulant was Adderall, which he took to stay awake while on a driving trip.

``It was an honest mistake,'' he said. ``I thought my NFL career was over.''

Veteran John Carney kicked for the Saints in their first 11 games, but Hartley rejoined the roster as soon as his suspension ended, and in December he regained the kicking job. Carney was released and is now a kicking consultant working with Hartley.

Hartley is 11 for 13 on field goals this season, including 2 for 2 in postseason. But his longest kick was only 43 yards, and he has totaled 104 career points - 1,900 behind Stover.

Perhaps one of their kicks will be the difference Sunday. From field goals to fair catches, every play's important in the Super Bowl.

Tagged: Colts, Saints, Ravens, Matt Stover, Reggie Bush, Garrett Hartley

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