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Special teams could tell the tale in NFC title clash

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Already this week we have examined offenses and defenses for the NFC title clash between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. The offenses are as identical as the Olsen twins and the defenses are uniformly stellar. Since about 37% of NFL games can be said to be decided by special teams, let's take a look there to see if the crystal ball becomes any more clear.

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Punting: Gross punting average is a fool's errand. Every punter in the NFL can kick the ball to the moon. Net punting, though, takes into account the entire punt, from kick through dead ball whistle. Seattle's net punt average is 40.3 yards, good for 13th in the conference. San Francisco nets 44.0 yards per punt, second in the NFC. Four yards per punt in a game that may well see quite a few such events could be significant. Advantage San Francisco.

Field Goals: These defenses aren't likely to offer engraved invitations into the end zone. This game could very well come down to Seattle's Steven Hauschka or San Francisco's Phil Dawson lining up a kick as time expires. Which one would you rather have behind the kick? If you said "Hauschka" give yourself a star. Not only will he be kicking on his home field and without 62,000 maniacs screaming epithets at him, Hauschka was successful on 33 of his 34 field goal attempts during the regular season. While Dawson was good, he did miss four of 36 attempts. Two of his misses were from 50+ yards while Hauschka was a flawless 3/3 from long range. Advantage Seattle.

Return Game: So who has the advantage when it comes to returning kicks? Well, about this we can offer a definitive...it depends. As of Thursday evening Seattle's Percy Harvin had yet to be cleared to play at all, much less return kicks. So far San Francisco's LaMichael James hasn't electrified the NFL as he did the Pac-12 during his days at the University of Oregon, but he's better than whoever the Hawks would choose with whom to replace Harvin. Advantage Seattle if Harvin plays. Slight advantage to San Francisco if Harvin sits.

Three days until the game and we don't know who to pick to win the thing, much less against the point spread, based on current analysis. Maybe an examination of coaching and intangibles will clear that cloudy crystal ball. We'll do that next.

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