In the NFL playoffs, pressure even reaches the feet

In the NFL playoffs, pressure even reaches the feet
January 18, 2013, 3:39 pm
Share This Post

FOXBORO -- Most NFL players will admit that postseason stakes add pressure.

"It's a one-game season," they say. "You lose, you go home."

And the thing about pressure is, it doesn't discriminate. You'll hear plenty this week, in advance of the AFC Championship, about how Patriots quarterback Tom Brady masters the madness. You'll have 30 stories to choose from that detail the way Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis embraces playoff chaos.

The kickers? They're under pressure, too. You just might not think about it unless a game is decided on his foot.

"You're remembered for the kicks people pay the most attention to, which is probably the end of the game in close games," New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski said Wednesday. "You want to be remembered for being someone who can come through for the team when it needs you the most, but you approach the game trying to make every kick.

"The game and the job is mental. You just have to try to find a way to try to do it the same way every time. It's not always going to go down the way you want it to. You've just got to be able to bounce back when it goes bad."

When kicks are good, a guy can fly contentedly under the radar. When kicks are bad, well, that guy might find himself job hunting.

Was anyone shocked when the Ravens cut Billy Cundiff?

The lack of raised hands may paint a cruel picture, but that's the business.

Cundiff, Baltimore's former kicker, immediately felt the white-hot branding of GOAT as his 32-yard chance to force overtime in last year's AFC Championship sailed wide, wide left. His miss was not the only reason New England earned a trip to Super Bowl XLVI, it's just the most memorable.

The Ravens released the Pro Bowler, in favor of a rookie, before 2012's regular season started.

Cundiff did receiver some sympathy . . . from Gostkowski, the victor, in particular. He understood Cundiff's anguish because he knows exactly how complicated the situation can be. Armchair quarterbacks, turned armchair kickers for the briefest of moments, believe it's so simple. "Just kick the damn ball!" they scream from their Lay-Z boys.

"There are so many factors and variables that go into it that it's hard to look at one kick and say this is why something happened," Gostkowski explained.

"Distance of the field goal, the weather, the ball, the wind, the field. There's a lot of stuff that can factor in -- the snap, the hold -- to why a kick can be good or not good. You just have to practice as much as you can to try to do the same thing every time so you get the most successful results by doing it one way."

But how can that be? These are professional kickers we're talking about. It's supposed to be easy for them, right?

"It's really easy to have something go wrong. It's a lot harder for it to go good every time."

He reiterated the mental aspect of the task.

"There could be a game where I can't miss in pregame warmups, but you don't try any field goals in the game," he said. "Or there could be a game where you feel like crap, in warmups you're hitting the ball all over the place, but you have to try five field goals. You just have to find a way to, when your name's called, to do it. Whether I've made all my kicks in practice all week, you still have to go out and perform for that one kick, and once that kick's done I move on and go to the next one."

Gostkowski knows a kick is good just coming off his foot about 95 percent of the time.

"There's been a couple kicks in my career that I swore I made it, but I looked up and it didn't. Most of the time you can feel it when you don't make it. When you make it, you don't even feel it; it's like hitting a home run or something like that. You do it so many times I've kicked the ball millions of times before. The hardest thing is just focus and concentration."

That means locking in when the lights are brightest and the fans are rowdiest. Gostkowski takes the Patriots mantra 'Ignore the Noise' and turns it on its head on game day. It's actually weirder if there is no crowd noise because he's so used to hearing it. He contends that when he's 100 percent focused, nothing bothers him as he takes the field.

"I play dumb, I really do. During the game, I try to watch like anybody else," he said. "When it comes to my job, I try not to get caught up in the ups and downs of the game because I'm not going to expend all my mental energy being a cheerleader on the sidelines. I need to be ready for when I have to go out there."

He will have to be as ready as Brady, as ready as Lewis, on Sunday's AFC Championship stage. But don't worry about Gostkowski; kickers are confident.

"We couldn't be in this position if we weren't strong enough."