NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: The Role Of Special Teams

Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Michael Crabtree, Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore will get plenty of attention all week. They will all play in big role in the outcome on Sunday, but fewer people seem to be aware of how important the plays will be when none of them are on the field. Special teams has played a significant role

It should come as no surprise that with teams this evenly matched that special teams can be the tipping point, and it often has in these games.

Game 1 – 49ers win 33-17 in SF

Jim Harbaugh’s debut as a 49er coach came in 2011 down in San Francisco. His team got out to a 16-0 lead before a 55-yard touchdown by Doug Baldwin brought the Seahawks within 19-17. Ted Ginn Jr. then returned the ensuing kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown. As if that was not enough, he took a punt after the next Seahawks series back 55 yards for another score. 

Game 2 – 49ers win 19-17 in Seattle

San Francisco came into the game as a popular Super Bowl pick, while Seattle was scuffling toward a losing season. Seattle fought to take a 10-3 lead at halftime, but a 33-yard punt return by Kevin Williams led to a David Akers field goal to give the 49ers a 13-10 lead in the third quarter.
Seattle special teams struck back when Heath Farwell blocked a punt and the Seahawks recovered at the San Francisco 4-yard line to setup a Lynch touchdown run. The first the 49ers had allowed all season.

Game 3 – 49ers win 13-6 in SF

Steven Hauchka missed a 51-yard field goal that would have given the Seahawks a 9-3 lead late in the second quarter. Ginn had a 16-yard punt return into Seattle territory to setup the 49ers final scoring drive that put them up 13-6.

Game 4 – Seahawks win 42-13 in Seattle

San Francisco punted after their first possession was a three-and-out. Leon Washington returned the punt 15 yards to the 50, but an unnecessary roughness penalty moved the ball to the 35, leading to the Seahawks opening touchdown. 
Ahead 14-0, the 49ers got down to the 3-yard line before Red Bryant blocked the field goal and Richard Sherman returned it the length of the field for a touchdown.
After finally getting their first points, Washington returned the kickoff 42 yards to setup another Seahawks touchdown and a 28-3 lead.

Game 5 – Seahawks win 29-3 in Seattle

Forgotten in the runaway Seattle win was how well things started out for the 49ers. Seattle got set to punt after their first drive stalled. Someone in the stands blew a whistle, causing a number of the Seahawks players to stand as if it was a dead ball. The ball was snapped and the 49ers blocked the punt. The play never should have counted, but it did. A heroic stand by the Seahawks defense in the end zone resulted in an interception to keep that special teams blunder from having a bigger impact.

Game 6 – 49ers win 19-17 in SF

Down 3-0, the Seahawks had another punt blocked in this game that led to a 6-0 deficit early. The defense once again saved it from being a bigger problem, but when a team loses by two points, these plays become even bigger.
Golden Tate had a 38-yard punt return late in the fourth that setup a Seahawks field goal to take a 17-16 lead. That could have been a game-winning play if not for the 49ers next drive.

Special Teams Heroes 

Percy Harvin has yet to play in these games, and is an obvious potential factor on special teams. Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell have been brilliant all year in punt coverage and Jon Ryan has been terrific on punts, as has Andy Lee. Hauschka and Phil Dawson are terrific kickers. Someone is going to make a play on special teams that has a major impact on this game. We find out who on Sunday.