Special teams playing huge role in 2012 season; Week 10 notes

Last Sunday, we saw two fake punts by the St. Louis Rams, a fake field goal for a touchdown by the Baltimore Ravens, a punt return for a touchdown by the Denver Broncos (albeit on a play that should have actually resulted in a touchback) and a punt block recovered for a touchdown by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But this wasn't a one-day phenomenon; all season long, special teams units have been ... well, special.

NFL kickers are connecting on a higher percentage of field-goal attempts than they have during any other season in the history of the NFL. And that mark -- 86.3 percent -- is a full percentage-point higher than the next best mark, set in 2008. Additionally, teams are using their kickers at a rate of 4.05 attempts per game, more frequently than they have in more than 38 seasons.

Still, kickers aren't perfect. On Sunday, St. Louis Rams rookie Greg Zuerlein missed a 58-yard attempt that would've defeated the San Francisco 49ers in overtime. (Of course, Zuerlein had just made a 53-yard kick that had been nullified by a delay-of-game penalty.) Earlier in that overtime period, 49ers kicker David Akers missed his own potential game-winning field-goal attempt from 41 yards out. But even with those two failing to connect, NFL kickers have booted 19 game-winners this season. That puts the 2012 campaign in a three-way tie for the most winning kicks in the first 10 weeks of a season.

The Bucs' punt block for a touchdown came just one week after the Chicago Bears pulled off the same feat en route to a 51-20 shellacking of the Tennessee Titans. Those were the 14th and 15th punt blocks of the season, setting the season pace for 26.3. Only five other times in NFL history -- and not since 1986 -- have we seen 26 or more punt blocks in a single season. To further put that number in perspective, we had just nine punt blocks all of last season.

Those wondering why I'm putting so much emphasis on special teams should just look at the 2010 San Diego Chargers. They led the league in total offense and total defense. Not only were they gaining yardage, they were also putting up points. Those Chargers ranked second in scoring offense and 10th in scoring defense. So how did that team fail to make the playoffs? Well, the simple answer is: special teams.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

» With Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas in the backfield, the New Orleans Saints were dead last in rushing offense. But with Chris Ivory entering the fold in the last two games, the Saints have hit 140 yards on the ground in consecutive weeks. Ivory led New Orleans in rushing and tallied a touchdown in each of those games. The Saints spent all those dollars on that backfield, and they're getting the most production out of their fourth-stringer. Funny game.

» One of the most important qualities in a franchise quarterback is the ability to make the players around him better. Case in point: Peyton Manning and Brandon Stokley. Stokley is a reliable receiver, but Manning makes him look like a Pro Bowler who is always open. The two players have a great deal of on-field chemistry for the Denver Broncos, and sometimes that can outweigh cumulative talent.

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» The New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham is the toughest mismatch in the NFL. And last Sunday, we had the pleasure of watching Graham opposite the tight end who paved the way for him: the Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez achieved multiple career milestones on Sunday, but Graham is his second coming. If Graham can stay healthy, it is not at all far-fetched to think he'll break many of the records Gonzalez is currently setting.

» On Sunday, Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson became the first back to surpass the 1,000-yard mark on the season. Some players wouldn't have even been practicing at this point after dealing with a knee injury like Peterson suffered last December. Peterson and Manning are in a two-horse race to be the Comeback Player of the Year.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.