The New England Patriots won a game this season with a scintillating punt return. But, in the end, they lost ground in the NFL's annual special teams rankings.
Solid - even sometimes spectacular - special teams play has long been a hallmark of Bill Belichick's title teams in Foxboro. Even in the wake of the dynasty, New England was ranked No. 1 in 2020 and No. 9 in 2021.
But while this season the anemic offense got most of the blame for the Pats' disappointing 8-9 record, special teams deserves its share of responsibility. Dragged down by a horrible punting season and two kickoff returns for touchdowns that may have caught them a playoff berth in the season-ending loss to the Buffalo Bills, their ranking in 2022 plummeted to 16th.
"I'm shocked that we performed this way," long-time special teams captain Matthew Slater said after the Bills' debacle. "We're supposed to be a strength ... but we let the team down."
Rookie Marcus Jones beat the New York Jets in Week 11 with a walk-off 84-yard punt return for a touchdown. And co-rookie Brendan Schooler helped secure wins at Pittsburgh and Cleveland with key fumble recovers on punt returns.
But for the most part the Pats' special teams were a liability.
An injury resulted in a setback year for former Pro Bowl punter Jake Bailey. And usually reliable veteran kicker Nick Folk missed five field goals and three extra points. Add that to the two long kickoff returns surrendered to Buffalo's Nyheim Hines, and it spelled doom.
The Patriots had the league's worst punting (41.7 yards) and net punting (35.9) averages, helping result in their opponents getting the best starting field position (28-yard line) in the league. They also allowed 18 points on special teams, most in the NFL.
While the Pats finished middle of the pack in rankings and record, some teams have the offensive firepower to overcome shaky special teams while others' spectacular play wound up being insignificant.
At the bottom: The top two seeds in the playoffs, the Philadelphia Eagles (No. 31) and Kansas City Chiefs (No. 32).
No. 1 in rankings: the 3-13-1 Houston Texans.
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