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How the forgotten unit of football could alter the NFC playoff picture

How special teams could make the difference for Seahawks playoff hopes

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

With a playoff berth hanging in the balance and the NFL announcing concurrent running of important NFC match-ups, many Seattle Seahawks fans will have their eyes both on the game against the division rival Cardinals, but also on the NFC South division match-up between the Falcons and Panthers. In both of these hugely important games, special teams could likely provide the difference between a sixth playoff berth in Seattle’s Pete Carroll era, or the first postseason miss since 2011.

Here are the special teams situations to look for in either game.

A look ahead to the Cardinals special teams

Former Browns/49ers kicker Phil Dawson is currently kicking for the Cardinals as they enter their final game (maybe?) under Bruce Arians’ leadership. Dawson is a capable kicker in the twilight of his career. Like so many others, he chose to move down to Arizona as retirement loomed. Dawson is having a less than stellar year at 77% for field goals made, but has several beyond 50 yards — his main issue is going 17-of-24 from 30-49 yards. To Seattle’s advantage is the fact the upcoming showdown occurs in their own backyard. The lower altitude of CenturyLink may come into play as Dawson has benefited from his newly found hometown stadium sitting above 2000 feet. The difference on 1-3 yards in total distance may not sound like much, but a yard or three closer can make a field goal significantly easier to make. Whether Seahawks’ kicker Blair Walsh can best his divisional counterpart remains to be seen.

Dawson is 17-of-21 on field goals and 10-of-12 on extra points against Seattle in his career.

Punting for Arizona is Andy Lee, Dawson’s teammate in San Francisco from 2013-2014. Lee is averaging 46.8 yards/punt and the Cards rank 27th in punting by DVOA. Overall, Arizona is ranked 29th on special teams.

A special showdown for a ticket to the postseason

With all of the consternation regarding the signing and subsequent performance of Walsh in Seattle it seems only fitting that the Seahawks playoff hopes may rest on the ability of the special teams unit to perform. Both Arizona and Seattle have struggled with putting kicks between the uprights this year and it could be the difference as Arians look to finish his tenure (will he???) with one more win in a place where he’s won three of his last four with their last loss at the CLink all the way back in 2014. And while Arians ends his stint as sheriff in the desert, Seattle eyes will also be on Atlanta to see if the Panthers provide playoff hope to the Puget Sound.

The Seahawks rank 31st in punting DVOA, only ahead of the New York Giants. They do rank sixth in kickoffs though, are above average in kickoff returns, about average in punt returns, and as you probably could have guessed, not doing so hot in field goals. There was that one time against the Falcons though that Tyler Lockett went absolutely off in kickoffs. Speaking of which ...

Panthers Kicking

Carolina’s Graham Gano is on a blistering pace thus far in the 2017 season. As of Week 16, he’s only missed one field goal on the year after 29 attempts, the lone miss being from beyond 50 yards. In the extra point game, Gano 120-of-129 since the league moved the PAT back in 2015. While Gano’s accuracy this year raises an eyebrow, so does his lack of field goals from beyond 50 yards and we’ve seen how 50+ yard attempts against the Falcons can prove critical.

Field goals aren’t the only area of special teams in which Carolina is excelling as Panthers punter Michael Palardy is averaging 45.9 yards a punt. What’s truly impressive is his placement: Of his 64 punt attempts, 25 of them are placed within the 20-yard line with only four touchbacks on the year. This, combined with excellent punt coverage, results in a net yardage change of just over 42 yards a punt.

Football Outsiders has the Panthers punting ranked four, with their overall special teams performance marked as sixth best in the league by DVOA, while Atlanta ranks 21st.

Falcons kicking

There’s a reason why Football Outsiders declared Matt Bryant of the Falcons the best clutch kicker in NFL history back in 2015. What was true then is largely true now, even while Bryant is having a good but not great year. Bryant sits at 85% for field goals and is perfect on PATs at 34/34. With so much made this year about the decline in offensive performance in Atlanta under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons playoff hopes may rest heavily on Bryant’s foot as they square off against a stout Carolina defense.

Working against a punting unit that does not often give opponents good field position won’t be doing Sarkisian and Matt Ryan any favors either. The Falcons have a positive DVOA in field goal attempts, but are below average in punting, returning punts, and returning kickoffs.

Among those gaffes was 197 yards of kickoff returns by Lockett in Week 11. Will Panthers’ returner Damiere Byrd — who had a critical kickoff return touchdown against the Bucs last week that kept the Seahawks from having a win-and-in situation this Sunday — be as successful? We’ll see, and we hope.