FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Baltimore Ravens bring one of the NFL’s best special teams into Gillette Stadium on Saturday to play the New England Patriots in an AFC divisional round playoff game.

They have the league’s best kickoff return average (28.3 yards) this year, led by Jacoby Jones (30.6), as well as the league’s best punter in Sam Koch, who had a net average of 43.3 yards. Kicker Justin Tucker has the highest career field-goal percentage (89.8) in NFL history.

But Ravens Coach John Harbaugh knows the Patriots’ special teams present a problem of their own.

“They’re ranked in the top three for sure, maybe they’re No. 1,” said Harbaugh. “They’ve just done a great job and probably have the best special teams coordinator in the history of football in Scott O’Brien. (He’s) been doing it a long time, knows the game inside and out, and always creates problems for you, always creates matchup problems, always knows how to take your best players out of things. They just do a great job across the board.”

While the spotlight often goes to Tom Brady and the Patriots’ high-scoring offense or Darrelle Revis and the shutdown defense, New England’s special teams have earned their own headlines. They’ve scored four touchdowns this year: two on returns of blocked field-goal attempts, one on a punt return, another on a fumble return on a kickoff. The Patriots blocked two other field goals, both game-savers. Brandon Bolden blocked a punt that turned a late-season game in San Diego in New England’s favor.

And they’re led by Matthew Slater, who earned his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance this year. Slater, who led the team with 14 special teams tackles, is a specialist, the gunner on punts and a sure tackler.

The Patriots succeed on special teams, he said, because the players realize how important they are.

“It’s a commitment,” he said. “Everybody has bought in, and committed themselves to improving, to competing day in and day out. And we’ve been able to see the fruits of our labor out on the field.”

The 29-year-old Slater, drafted out of UCLA in the fifth round in 2008, has shown that a player can make it in the NFL by excelling on special teams. He is listed as a wide receiver, but has caught only one pass in his career, for 46 yards in 2011. He is on this roster because of his special teams play. And other players are following his lead.

“I know here that it’s kind of the cool thing to do, a badge of honor,” said Slater. “A lot of guys take pride of it. And we have a lot of guys … this is how we make our living. This is all we have, this is how we are part of this football team. So we put everything we have into it and I think that dedication is paying off for us.”

Other than Slater, the Patriots have some players that jump out at you. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski led the NFL in scoring with 156 points this year and surpassed Adam Vinatieri as the team’s all-time leading scorer this year. Julian Edelman is tied for fourth in NFL history with a 12.2 punt return average (averaging 12.0 yards this season, second in the NFL). Danny Amendola stepped in to return kickoffs and averaged 24.1 yards, as well as averaging 8.3 yards on punt returns.

And then there are the big plays.

Chandler Jones and Kyle Arrington returned blocked field goals for touchdowns. The Patriots beat the Jets twice in close games this year, both times aided by blocked field goals – first by Chris Jones on the game’s final play (27-25) and then by Vince Wilfork (17-16).

Arrington returned a fumble on a kick return for a touchdown against Cincinnati. Edelman has his weaving 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against Denver. And Bolden blocked a punt against the Chargers with the Patriots trailing 14-6 that turned the game in their favor.

“Our special teams has been a real strength of ours for a long time,” said Brady. “We’ve got a lot of guys that take a lot of pride in that; really well coached also.”

It surely isn’t coincidental that both teams are coached by people (Bill Belichick in New England and Harbaugh in Baltimore) who have special teams backgrounds.

“These guys are as good a group as there is in the league,” said Slater. “And they play the game the right way. They play hard, they play physical.”

Sounds like the Patriots too.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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