In the NFL playoffs, pressure even reaches the feet


In the NFL playoffs, pressure even reaches the feet

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."

Game notes: Patriots vs. Steelers


Game notes: Patriots vs. Steelers

A quick look at the information you need to know about today's Patriots-Steelers game:

TEAM RECORDS: Patriots 5-1, Steelers 4- 2

GAME TIME: 4:25 p.m. EST


TV ANNOUNCERS: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms and Tracy Wolfson


NATIONAL RADIO ANNOUNCERS: Larry Kahn, Mark Carrier and Troy West

LOCAL RADIO NETWORK: Anchored by WBZ-FM (98.5 The Sports Hub)

LOCAL RADIO ANNOUNCERS: Bob Socci and Scott Zolak


LAST MEETING: Patriots 28, Steelers 21 on Sept. 10, 2015 at Gillette Stadium

* * * *
-- The Patriots are 8-11 against the Steelers in Pittsburgh in their history, but are 4-2 at Heinz Field. Included in those four Heinz Field victories are two in AFC Championship Games (in the 2001 and 2004 seasons).

-- Tom Brady is 8-2 against the Steelers in his career.

-- The last time Brady played the Steelers, in 2015, he set a Patriots franchise record with 19 consecutive pass completions.

-- The Patriots are 108-70 (.607) in road games since 1994, the best record in the NFL over that span. The Steelers (97- 82, .542) are second.

-- The Patriots have yet to throw an interception in 2016, setting a team record for consecutive games without an interception at the start of a season (6). The NFL record for consecutive games at the start of a season without a pick is 9, set by the 1960 Browns. The Patriots' franchise record for overall consecutive games with no interceptions is 8, set in 2010.

* * * *
-- Rob Gronkowski has 67 overall touchdowns and needs one to tie Stanley Morgan (68) for the franchise record.

-- Gronkowski has 66 receiving touchdowns and needs one to tie Morgan (67) for the franchise record.

-- Gronkowski has 22 100-yard receiving games, including two in 2016, and is tied with Jackie Smith for the third-most among all NFL tight ends. The only TEs who have more are Kellen Winslow (24) and Tony Gonzalez (31).

Haggerty: Bruins continue to stumble against Canadiens at home

Haggerty: Bruins continue to stumble against Canadiens at home

BOSTON -- One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Much like Charlie Brown was never going to actually kick the football before Lucy pulled it away, it feels like the Bruins are never again going to beat the Montreal Canadiens at TD Garden. They failed again Saturday night, never holding a lead at any point as they dropped their ninth straight home game to the Habs, 4-2.

Bruins-Canadiens games in Boston have become the hockey version of 'Groundhog Day', as the same patterns emerge over and over again: Montreal's speed forces the Bruins into mistakes with the puck; Habs players draw the B’s into taking bad penalties; Carey Price dominates in goal. It's been that way ever since the last Bruin victory over Montreal at the Garden, on Jan. 12, 2012. To put it perspective, Tim Thomas and Tyler Seguin were still Bruins back then.

Saturday night's loss, though, had a little added twist: The B's second-period woes, such a problem last year, reared its ugly head again.

“[The second period was] terrible, and that’s where it really hurt us," said Claude Julien. "I thought we played well (in the first period) . . . But the second period came back to haunt us. We were flat coming out. We didn’t make good outlet passes, and we spent way too much time in our own end, and because of that, it gave them some momentum. And by the end of it, we cheated ourselves a little bit, and pucks ended up in the back of our net . . .

"[When] you give up four goals to Montreal, and you have Price at the other end, it’s pretty hard to beat that team. So we needed to be better . . . [We] shot ourselves in the foot with some real poor mistakes, and we can’t afford to do that against the Montreal Canadiens."

The Bruins were essentially done for after a couple of very typical Boston-Montreal plays went against them in the middle 20 minutes.

The first was a defensive coverage breakdown in the D-zone that allowed both Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher to operate with time and space. Five B’s players simply watched as Gallagher smoked a one-timer from the outside of the left circle that eluded Anton Khudobin.

Then, later in the period, John-Michael Liles misread a play where he pinched deep in the offensive zone and couldn’t control the puck. As a result, Alexander Radulov worked a 2-on-1 with Phillip Danault to skilled perfection on a typical Habs transition play.

"I think our second period has got to be better overall," said Patrice Bergeron. "We talked about them having a good forecheck . . . [but] we didn’t make the easy plays too many times. When you do that, it creates turnovers and you spend more time in your zone than you’d like to."

From there, it was just more of the same. Playing with the lead, Montreal was able to neutralize Bergeron and Brad Marchand; Bergeron never got a shot on goal. Price came up big when he had to, shutting down a couple of Ryan Spooner chances.

And Bruin weaknesses were exposed, things Julien and the coaching staff may have to address. It looks like it’s time to move on from the Joe Morrow/Torey Krug defense pairing; it's simply not working. (Krug, in particular, was a minus-3 and made mistakes all over the ice.) They also may need to switch things up with the forwards, as they're getting zippo offensively from their second and third lines.

To their credit, the Bruins never packed it in. They hung in and made plays in the third period to keep the game close, right up to the 6-on-3 advantage they had at the end. But there are no consolation prizes or moral victories in the Boston-Montreal rivalry, especially when the Habs have made it so one-sided.

To be a true rivalry, you need equal rivals. And the Bruins, especially at home, aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.