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Why special teams could make all the difference in Sunday’s AFC championship

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The Texans game last Sunday — and the Week 10 game against the Titans — illustrate how much of a difference special teams play can make.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It is likely that Kansas City Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen made the most important play of the team’s 51-31 win over the Houston Texans last Sunday.

In the second quarter, the Texans faked a punt on fourth-and-4, snapping it directly to safety Justin Reid. Sorensen read the play perfectly, tackling Reid short of the first down marker — and giving the Chiefs possession deep in Houston territory.

“That was one of the most unbelievable tackles I’ve ever seen on a special teams play,” said Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub on Thursday. “It was a solo tackle, out in space, hard tackle, angle tackle and then he has to stop him short for basically a two-yard gain — otherwise they get the first down... he went and made a play — and it was huge for us in that moment.”

Sorensen’s heroics led to the Chiefs’ second touchdown of the game — and put fuel on the fire that became a 41-point Kansas City scoring run. Sorensen also came up big on the ensuing kickoff, forcing a fumble that once again gave his team possession with a short field.

But before that, a 58-yard kick return by wide receiver Mecole Hardman helped the Chiefs score their first touchdown of the game.

And before that, the Texans had returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and recovered Tyreek Hill’s muffed punt, putting them at the Kansas City 6-yard line — where they promptly scored a touchdown.

In a game where blocked and muffed punts helped put Kansas City into a 24-point hole, even bigger special teams plays dug them out of it. Toub’s unit is as dynamic as any other — and the Texans game proved in the postseason, it could be the main difference between winning or losing.

Late in the Chiefs’ Week 10 matchup against the Tennessee Titans, a fumbled snap and a block on back-to-back Chiefs field goal attempts destroyed Kansas City’s chance of pulling out a victory. Had either of those plays gone normally, the Chiefs could have extended their lead or sent the game into overtime. Instead, bad special teams play cost them an important game.

But they have a chance to redeem themselves on Sunday in the AFC Championship game. On Thursday, punter Dustin Colquitt said the team has worked on fixing what led to the special teams miscues in Week 10 — including a predictable snap count.

“When you have seven, eight, nine field goals or extra points in a game like our offense does, you end up doing a lot more than other teams,” he said. “We just had to kind of step back and self-scout... make sure we throw enough different stuff in there so people aren’t getting used to our snap count.”

It’s clear that the special teams could play as big of a role as anything in Sunday’s game. While most will be watching how well Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill perform, plays from Hardman, Sorensen and Colquitt may be just as important to the game’s outcome.

“It’s going to come down to small plays,” said Toub. “Just like last week: it was huge. Our guys know how important it is. We’re focused, we’re preparing and we’re ready.”