When two exceptional defenses collide in the playoffs, the outcome of the game is often decided by field position.
Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Albert Haynesworth and Jevon Kearse undoubtedly will play key roles in Saturday's AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans. But two of the NFL's finest punters, Baltimore's Sam Koch and Tennessee's Craig Hentrich, might prove to be more influential than all those defensive stars.
"Koch might be the best one out there now, and Hentrich is a veteran of veterans. That's another guy who knows how to keep a team backed up," Ravens kicker Matt Stover said: "We're going to have two good punters on Saturday. It will be fun to watch them both."
Koch led the NFL with 18 punts inside the 10 yard-line. He ranked second with 34 kicks inside the 20, and his 45-yard gross average and 39.9 net were single-season franchise records.
"Field position is going to be huge in this game, and Sam has been a huge plus for us, pinning them not just inside the 20, but inside the 10," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher has an equal amount of praise for Hentrich and, like Harbaugh, expects the punters to play key roles.
"We put a great deal of emphasis on our special teams, maybe a little bit more than most people," Fisher said. "Field position quite clearly could a very big part of this game."
Hentrich will play in his 11th postseason game with the franchise, trailing only Bruce Matthews (15). This will be Hentrich's 22nd career playoff game, second only to Adam Vinatieri in NFL history.
"I totally respect the guy," Koch said.
Now in his third season, Koch elevated his play this season by adding a rugby kick to his repertoire. By dropping the ball with the nose pointed down, he has added accuracy and distance to kicks designed to land near the opponent's goal line.
"I'm basically trying to hit the bottom side of the ball, do what a field-goal kicker does: get it to go end over end," Koch said.
In last week's wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins, Koch averaged 43.4 yards on five kicks, including a 52-yarder, but he also placed two inside the 10. It was a performance not unlike many he had during a fine regular season.
"He's a hard-working young man. He worked all offseason, starting in March," Ravens special-teams coach Jerry Rosburg said. "He looked at his game and did some things differently, and it's paid off for him."
Said Stover: "He listened and learned and worked very hard. Sam was willing to do what was necessary to evolve into a better punter."
"If we can stop them consistently on defense, then we can get some returns," Tennessee kick returner Chris Carr said. "Once they get past the 50 ... you're rolling the dice. You don't want your offense to start from the 3 yard-line or the 2 against this defense, or any defense, in the playoffs."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press