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Eagles special teams rising to the occasion

The Eagles took the special-teams bar a year ago and raised it to a place it had never been before.

The Eagles took the special-teams bar a year ago and raised it to a place it had never been before.

Seven touchdowns from the special-teams units tied an NFL record. There were also six blocked kicks, a league-leading 150 points from rookie kicker Cody Parkey and a league-high 34 punts inside the 20-yard line from Donnie Jones.

The team's 10-6 record that was not good enough to make the playoffs would have been 8-8 or possibly worse without all those special contributions.

"That obviously was the best special teams anybody has ever seen a group play for a whole season," linebacker Connor Barwin said Wednesday after practice. "That's almost an impossible act to follow, but in the last couple weeks they're getting hot and finding their groove again."

It would take a remarkable finish in the final three games for this year's Eagles special teams to be compared to last year's units, but that might be exactly what this team needs to win the NFC East.

Most of the talk during the team's two-game winning streak has focused on the improved play of quarterback Sam Bradford and the overpowering presence of Fletcher Cox along the defensive line. The truth is we would be talking about a five-game losing streak if not for the special teams.

This season was on the brink of being lost up in New England when the Patriots went for the knockout punch with a surprise drop kick after taking a 14-0 lead. Veteran special teamer Seyi Ajirotutu was unfooled and made the recovery to give the Eagles great field position.

It was the first of three big plays by special teams in that game. The next one came just before halftime when Chris Maragos blocked a punt that was returned for a game-tying touchdown by Najeh Goode.

In the third quarter, returner extraordinaire Darren Sproles took a punt 83 yards for a touchdown to give the Eagles a stunning 14-point lead. It doesn't take a mathematician to understand the importance of two special-teams touchdowns on a day your team wins by seven.

Sunday against Buffalo, linebacker Bryan Braman recovered a muffed punt in Bills territory to set up the Eagles' second touchdown. Jones dictated field position by averaging 50.4 yards per punt. Caleb Sturgis converted on three field goals, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter.

"It felt like back to normal, how it was last year when we were making a ton of plays and flying around all over the place," Eagles tight end Trey Burton said. "We just have to continue to do it."

Nobody should have expected this year's special-teams units to duplicate what the Eagles did last year, but the fact that they were contributing to losses rather than masking weaknesses in wins earlier this season was cause for concern.

There was the missed fourth-quarter field goal by Parkey in an opening-night loss in Atlanta. There was the blocked Jones punt that led to a touchdown in a Week 2 loss to Dallas. With Parkey out for the season because of a severe groin injury, Sturgis stepped in and missed a 33-yard field goal in a three-point loss to Washington. Another missed field goal and a blocked punt loomed large in a one-point loss to Miami.

Some of the blame on both was pinned on veteran Jon Dorenbos, who had been a consistent long-snapping machine for nearly a decade. Dorenbos said he got himself into trouble by trying to emulate other long snappers around the league, but he feels like he's back to being himself.

"We've had ups and downs," Braman said. "Some of the things we did last year, I'm sure that stuck in the minds of other units and that put a target on our back and we just had to respond to it. We faced a couple of blocked punts and we really had to put our head down, forget about it and move on and make our own plays."

Burton, excelling in his second season in the league on special teams, saw another issue. The departures of James Casey, Chris Prosinski, Casey Matthews and Chris Polk did not get much offseason attention, but their spots had to be filled on special teams and in many cases they were with younger players.

"We lost a lot of key guys from last year," Burton said. "A lot of veteran guys who had done it for a long time aren't here. It took us a little bit to get us back up to speed where we wanted to be."

If the last two weeks are any indication, they are back and their contributions in these final three weeks could well be the difference between a first-round playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field and another postseason without the Eagles.