Overlooked phase could be difference-maker

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Even though the third phase of the game is often overlooked, special teams could be a determining factor in the playoffs. Falcons kick returner Jerious Norwood, Giants P Jeff Feagles and Panthers WR Steve Smith are game-changers who could potentially win a game. Here are the best special teams units in the playoffs.

1. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons field the best and most consistent special-teams units in the postseason. Their coverage units allow just 2.5 yards per punt return. PK Jason Elam is 11 of 12 from beyond the 40-yard line and P Michael Koenen has a strong leg, which allows him to pin opponents inside the 20-yard line. Atlanta also has two capable returners in Norwood (kicks) and WR Harry Douglas (punts), who give the Falcons a chance to start with a short field.

2. New York Giants

The Giants' special-teams units have been excellent most of the season. Their coverage units have been consistent maintaining field position and rarely give their opponents a short field to work with. The Giants have the oldest duo of kicking specialists in the NFL with Feagles, 42, and PK John Carney, 44. Both players have been excellent at executing their craft, and age hasn't been a factor. The Giants have two solid athletes handling their return duties -- WR Domenik Hixon and RB Ahmad Bradshaw -- but aren't explosive enough to improve field position across the board.

3. Carolina Panthers

Carolina's coverage units hold their opponents to only 6.8 yard per punt return and 21.9 yards per kick return. Return specialists Smith and WR Mark Jones are small but have great quickness and burst to hit a crease. The Panthers' kicking specialists, P Jeff Baker and PK John Kasay, have also been outstanding. Baker has a live leg and is adept at pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line, and Kasay is hitting 90.3 percent of his attempts.

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