Kick-starters or momentum killers?

INDIANAPOLIS -- One losing team had its chance to send the game into overtime dashed by a missed 32-yard field goal. The other losing team fumbled a punt deep in its territory to essentially give the game away.

If ever there was a set of back-to-back games that highlighted the importance of special teams, last week's AFC and NFC championships were them.

Often overlooked as the third phase of the game, behind offense and defense, it's the area where teams' more anonymous players often toil. Just don't call them any less important, as last week's stunning results showed.

Longtime New England Patriots followers need no reminder, of course, as it was Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that served as the Green Bay Packers' final knockout punch in Super Bowl XXXI. Few went into that game thinking it would be a big deal that little-known receiver Hason Graham was playing on the kickoff coverage unit instead of the reliable-but-injured Troy Brown, until Howard surged through the lane Brown would have been occupying.

This is where coach Bill Belichick, as he prepares for Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants on Feb. 5, leans heavily on players such as safety/receiver Matthew Slater, safety Sergio Brown and linebackers Tracy White, Niko Koutouvides and Dane Fletcher.

They might not play much on offense or defense, but they are top contributors to what special teams coach Scott O'Brien calls the "Big 4" -- punt coverage, punt return, kickoff coverage and kickoff return. Put them together with specialists Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Zoltan Mesko (punter) and Danny Aiken (snapper) and that's eight crucial pieces on the 46-man game-day roster.

"I call it the hidden yardage in football and it gets magnified in the playoffs. I'm not sure people understand how important field position is in the playoffs," said Koutouvides, an eight-year veteran who joined the team in early November to shore up some shaky special-teams play. "It's a huge part of the game, but I think a lot of people underestimate it because the glory comes in scoring touchdowns and big hits on defense."

Field position was also a major factor in the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Giants on Nov 6. On that day, the Giants held the Patriots scoreless in the first half, in large part because New England's first-half drives started at its own 5-, 6-, 17-, 20-, 11- and 9-yard lines. With a long field to drive, the Patriots had to make more plays, which led to more mistakes.

Yes, the Giants' defense was strong that day, and forced three turnovers. But the scoreless half probably doesn't happen if not for solid special-teams play. The Giants also forced a Julian Edelman fumble on a punt return.

In part because of his background as a special-teams coach early in his career, Bill Belichick has traditionally placed a heavy emphasis in that area, such as signing Pro Bowler Larry Izzo as a free agent in 2001, linebacker Don Davis in 2003, trading up to select Slater in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, and swapping a late-round draft choice for White at the end of 2010 training camp.

Belichick called Izzo "a great tone setter" and one of the best special teamers he's coached. Going back to his days as Detroit Lions assistant special teams coach in 1976-77, Belichick recalled receiver Leonard Thompson as a top threat in that area of the game.

It's early yet, but Slater could soon find himself in that category. He's the Patriots' special-teams captain, having earned his first Pro Bowl berth this year after leading the team with 17 tackles.

"It's kind of a badge that I wear and I'm proud of it," he said of his standing as the Patriots' ace in the kicking game. "With that role comes a mentality -- 'I'll do whatever it takes to help the team win.' All the guys embrace the role. I've never been around a group of guys that enjoys covering kicks like we do."

The special teamers have a spirited competition among themselves during games in three categories -- who can get down the field first, who can make the tackle, and how many times they can pin the opposition inside the 20 and 10.

"It's a little bit extra motivation," Slater explained. "We get into the huddle before a kickoff and it's 'I'll meet you at the ball' and 'Who's going to get there first?' The competition within the group makes us better."

As for the role, it's one they've all come to accept. Sure, they are competitors with a desire to help on offense or defense, but they also understand why they were brought on to the team in the first place. It's helped players like White, the speedy veteran who never played special teams in college at Howard, last nine seasons.

"That's how we make our bones, how we feed our families and stayed around in this league. I take a lot of pride in it and once you do that, it becomes part of who you are," added Koutouvides, who credited former Seattle Seahawks teammate Isaiah Kacyvenski of Harvard for taking him under his wing and explaining the importance of special teams.

"When you get on a team and have guys believing what they're doing, it's not offense, defense, special teams, and putting them in an order. It's all about team, and it all has to come together one way or another. I don't view special teams as a stigma."

After what happened last week in the AFC and NFC championship games, why would anyone?

"The bigger the game, the more important it is," Koutouvides said. "When you have a group that understands that, it's always a good thing."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.