No Phase Left Unturned

With two closely matched teams, field position will take on a greater importance in determining the outcome of the Bears-Panthers matchup. Saturday's divisional games proved why the third phase of the game can't be overlooked.

A fortunate bounce off a muffed punt helped Carolina put a field goal on the board just before halftime against the Giants. It gave the Panthers a 10-0 lead at the break and the momentum carried over into the second half in a 23-0 win.

In both playoff games on Saturday, special teams turnovers led to points. A mistake can happen on any play and anticipation can be the difference between capitalizing on an opponent's miscue and letting the opportunity slip through your fingers.

"You kind of can feel it," said special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo. "Some players don't play with as much instinct so it's harder for them but every time when I release on a punt I'm looking right at the returner and once I see him running forward I already know it's going to be a short kick and there's a possibility of a muff so I try to get up on him as fast as I can."

Chicago will have the challenge of stopping Steve Smith in two facets of the game. Not only is he a Pro Bowl receiver, but he also averaged 10.6 yards per punt return this season. The Bears held him to 18 yards on just two attempts in the first meeting.

"He can take it to the house every time he touches the ball," Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "He has great speed, he's real elusive and he can hit the outside. If there's a crease in your coverage, if there's one guy out of position, he'll find that hole and take it the distance."

The Bears will rely on two rookies in critical roles. Rashied Davis is expected to take over the kick return role from Jerry Azumah, who has struggled to break long returns this season. Placekicker Robbie Gould connected on 21 of 27 field goals, but the pressure of a postseason kick can make even the most poised veteran crumble.

Uncharacteristically, New England K Adam Vinatieri missed a 43-yard field goal that hurt the Patriots chances of trying to win a third straight Super Bowl. He has two game-winning Super Bowl kicks on his resume.

The third phase of the game is often overlooked unless something goes terribly wrong. Nobody cared about Bobby Wade until he started to drop punts. The Bears win at Green Bay, which clinched the NFC North title, turned into a tight game down the stretch because of an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown by Antonio Chapman.

"Special teams are always overlooked," said LB Leon Joe, who finished second to Ayanbadejo in special teams tackles. "It might seem like a small part of the game but if you slack off or take it lightly then it's a big part of the game cause it can change the game with field position."

Considering the Bears often play close games, field position takes on an even greater importance. Shortening the field for the offense and lengthening it for the defense can quickly swing momentum in the game.

"This is one-third of the ballgame for us," Ayanbadejo said. "On ESPN they don't talk about special teams but so what. In here it's just as important as our offense and defense. We're really thinking if we can win the special teams phase of the game we're just going to give ourselves a better chance to win the ballgame."

In what is expected to be a closely contested contest, it could very well mean the difference between winning and losing.

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