By Larry Fine
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - With four of the last five Super Bowls decided by less than a touchdown, Sunday's title clash could come down to a kicking contest between Baltimore's red-hot Justin Tucker and San Francisco's ice cold David Akers.
"I think special teams can have an impact on every NFL game because games are so close," Baltimore Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg told Reuters on Wednesday.
"We think it's going to be a great match-up and the special teams will be a big part of the game."
Both teams have excelled on kick returns and coverage, but the two special team players most likely to put points on the scoreboard, or cost their team points, are the kickers.
Tucker, 23, comes into the game off an outstanding rookie campaign having connected on 30-of-33 field goal attempts in the regular season and both of his tries in the postseason.
Akers, 38, has missed the most field goals of any NFL kicker this season, hitting on just 29-of-42 opportunities during the regular season and 1-of-2 in the playoffs.
The strong left-footed Akers, who a year ago earned his sixth Pro Bowl selection after converting 44-of-52 attempts, was at a loss to explain his struggles.
"An inch is a mile in this game," Akers told reporters about his frustrating season. "We're not missing by much. We're doing great in practice, doing great in pre-game.
"It's just one of those things that if I had the answer I would have fixed it a long time ago."
Confidence in Akers sank so low that the 49ers tried out other kickers during the postseason and considered a change.
"It's not like I forgot how to kick, it's just that we've had issues that have come up," said Akers. "Whether I've misjudged wind ... the holding (for the kick), the snap situation."
For Tucker, it has been just the opposite.
Undrafted after his kicking career at the University of Texas, the Ravens signed him and changed his technique during training camp and installed him as their kicker.
"I made a 180-degree transformation from the kicker I was in college technically to the point where I have so much more control over my ball now," he said. "I feel like ... it's hard for me to miss."
Akers knows that he can bury the memory of his worst NFL season with one kick at the Superdome on Sunday, but understands the pressures.
"It comes down to whether you can make or miss. There's no gray area," he said.
Riding his kicking high, Tucker said he has imagined hitting a game-winning kick in the Super Bowl.
"I definitely have," he said. "These are the moments that you dream about and you think about as a little kid.
"Just thinking about it now, you almost get goose bumps thinking about it."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)