Everybody knows it: Super Bowls often come down to special teams play.
In Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots
squeaked out a 20-17 win over the Rams
thanks to a game-winning kick from Adam Vinatieri. Vinatieri repeated those heroics in Super Bowl XXXVIII, helping the Pats edge the Panthers
But big special teams performances aren't the realm of kickers alone. With that in mind, and with Super Bowl XLI less than two weeks away, it's hard to understand why the Chicago Bears
' most potent weapon is being entirely ignored by the media.
Not quite, I'm talking about Devin Hester.
For the uninitiated (read: non-Chicagoans), the rookie defensive back has scored a record six touchdowns this year on kick returns, including a game-winning score against the Arizona Cardinals
in Week Six. Hester was named to the All-Pro team, and has shown that he can be a threat at any time.
So should we expect him to be a factor in Miami
While Hester has yet to play in a Super Bowl, other return specialists have left their marks on the game over the years, and one big return has sometimes made all the difference.
Look at Super Bowl XXXI, a shootout between Green Bay
and New England
. In the third quarter, the Patriots scored to cut Green Bay's lead to 28-21, apparently regaining momentum after surrendering 17 unanswered points.
But then there was Desmond Howard.
When the former Heisman Trophy winner returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for touchdown, the game was effectively over. The Patriots never even got back to the red zone, and the Packers cruised to a 35-21 victory.
Super Bowl XXXV was no less notable for its fireworks. In a battle of defenses between the New York Giants
and the Baltimore Ravens
, each team managed to exploit the other's kick-coverage flaws, with almost half of the game's points coming on special teams. In the third quarter, New York's Ron Dixon ran back a kick for a 97-yard touchdown, his team's only score of the day. Unfortunately for the Giants
, Raven Jermaine Lewis returned the favor on the very next play, going 84 yards for a touchdown that helped secure a 34-7 Baltimore
And not every game-changing return performance has been a memorable one. In Super Bowl XXV, the Giants outplayed the Buffalo Bills
on offense and defense, but their failure to establish field position on kick returns made the score much closer than it needed to be. The measly 48 return yards netted by New York's Dave Meggett and Dave Duerson forced the Giants to punt on four occasions when they might have otherwise been in field-goal range, and New York was lucky to escape with a 20-19 win.
So where does Devin Hester fit into all this?
In the AFC Championship Game, New England's Ellis Hobbs torched the Indianapolis Colts
for 220 yards on six returns. Although Hobbs didn't score, he certainly proved that Indy's coverage units are nothing if not vulnerable.
If a backup like Hobbs could so much damage, you've got to figure that Hester is licking his chops.
At the same time, though, the youngster has been prone to rookie mistakes. In their playoff matchup against the Seattle Seahawks
, Hester nearly cost the Bears
the game with three fumbles and a mere 56 yards on six returns. To be fair, Hester did
have a 63-yard touchdown called back on a penalty in that one, but the fact remains that three turnovers would very likely be fatal against the Colts
The question, then, seems to be this: Which Devin Hester is going to show up on Super Sunday, the rookie sensation with six touchdowns, or the shaky newbie with slippery fingers? Whatever the case, it's a safe bet that Hester's presence alone will keep everyone, the Bears, the Colts, and the fans, on the edge of their seats.