Published January 11, 2014
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Baltimore Ravens couldn't keep Trindon Holliday out of the record books a year ago, although they did manage to relegate him to a footnote.
Denver's returner snapped out of a slump when he piled up an NFL-record 248 yards in returns in the Broncos' 38-35 loss in double-overtime to the Ravens.
He's the only NFL player ever to take both a punt and a kickoff for scores in a playoff game, and nobody's ever returned a longer punt (90 yards) or kickoff (104 yards) in the postseason than he did on that frigid day in Denver.
Holliday enters this year's playoffs in another prolonged dry spell — he hasn't scored since September and he has six muffs over the last two months.
Still, Broncos special teams coach Jeff Rodgers remains a firm believer that he could be a difference-maker Sunday when the Broncos (13-3) face the San Diego Chargers (10-7) on a windy day at Sports Authority Field in the AFC Divisional playoffs.
"Every time that guy touches the ball, he's got a chance to get in the end zone," Rodgers said.
With a half-dozen TDs in 32 games, Holliday has the highest special teams TD rate (5.3) in NFL history since the 1970 merger, ahead of Devin Hester, who had 19 return touchdowns in 128 games (6.7).
Holliday had an 81-yard punt return for a TD against the Giants and a 105-yard kickoff return for a score against the Eagles in September, when the Broncos also blocked two punts.
Then, an injury epidemic on defense affected their special teams depth and one of the Broncos' biggest strengths became a weak link.
Not only has Holliday been bottled up for a career-high 11-game stretch — he was sidelined for another game by a concussion — but the Broncos have had at least one major mistake on special teams in each of their last six games:
— In his homecoming at New England, Wes Welker failed to signal his teammates to clear out fast enough and a punt bounced off teammate Tony Carter, the Patriots recovered and kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime.
— At Kansas City, the Broncos surrendered a franchise-record 108-yard kickoff return TD by Knile Davis.
— They allowed a 95-yard kickoff return by Tennessee's Leon Washington the following week.
— Nate Irving jumped offside on a punt out of the end zone on fourth-and-4 and the 5-yard penalty gave San Diego a first down, allowing the Chargers to keep Peyton Manning on the sideline for 7 more minutes, which proved crucial in Denver's 27-20 defeat, the Broncos' only home loss all season.
— Holliday's slump-busting 50-yard punt return at Houston was negated by Carter's holding penalty.
— And in the season finale at Oakland, Britton Colquitt saw his first blocked punt in 317 career tries.
It would be easy to blame the roster gymnastics for the slippage down the stretch, but Rodgers wouldn't go there.
"Everybody deals with that stuff and injuries are always going to affect your total personnel," he said. "That's kind of the job description to try to manage that situation and put the new guys in a position to be successful."
The Broncos saw last year just how big special teams can be in a pressure-packed playoff game and they spent a good amount of time over the last two weeks working to fix flaws in that area.
"It's just as important as all the other phases," Omar Bolden said. "To be honest, if you really want to beat a team, you need to win the special teams. It's kind of hard to win without it."
With the National Weather Service predicting winds of 15-25 mph with gusts up to 35 Sunday, special teams could prove paramount, suggested Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who earned a promotion from the practice squad because of his special teams work.
"A lot of people overlook it because they look at the runners, at who's catching the passes, who's throwing the passes, who's making interceptions," Marshall said. "Special teams get overlooked, but it's huge. It's huge. In the playoffs, it's monumental."
Holliday said with the windy conditions Sunday, he expects fewer touchbacks on kickoffs and fewer fair catches on punts.
"We don't get very many opportunities," he said, "so when we get the opportunities this weekend, we've got to take full advantage of it."
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