In the NFL playoffs, pressure even reaches the feet

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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."

Eduardo Rodriguez strong, Red Sox down Mariners for 5th straight win

Eduardo Rodriguez strong, Red Sox down Mariners for 5th straight win

BOSTON (AP)  Eduardo Rodriguez pitched six scoreless innings and the Boston Red Sox took advantage of a sloppy performance by the Seattle Mariners to earn their season-high fifth straight win, 3-0 on Friday night.

It was the third consecutive win for Rodriguez (4-1), who went six innings, gave up just five hits and struck out four while throwing a season-high 112 pitches. Craig Kimbrel earned his 13th save.

Rodriguez has pitched at least six innings in his last seven starts, going 4-0 in that span.

The only run support Rodriguez needed came in the second inning, when Hanley Ramirez scored on Josh Rutledge's RBI groundout. Boston added two more runs in the sixth, scoring on a wild pitch and passed ball.

Yovani Gallardo (2-5) took the loss. He lasted 5 1/3 innings, gave up seven hits and was responsible for all three of Boston's runs. Seattle has won just one of its last seven.

Meanwhile, Boston gave Rodriguez got lots of help from his defense. Jackie Bradley Jr. had a pair of nice plays, getting an outfield assist in the second and running down another ball on the warning track in the sixth.

In addition to the pitching miscues, the Mariners had all kinds of issues in the wet conditions, committing two fielding errors.

The Red Sox left 11 runners on base, leaving the door open for the Mariners to get back in the game. But Seattle couldn't capitalize, going 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position. The Mariners also left seven runners stranded.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Mariners: LHP James Paxton (strained left forearm) was slated to make a rehab start Friday night in Double-A Arkansas. He has been on the 10-day disabled list since May 5. He could be activated for a start at the end of the month against Colorado.

Red Sox: Infielder Marco Hernandez will be out the remainder of the season after undergoing stabilization surgery on his left shoulder on Friday. Hernandez was placed on the disabled list May 4 with a left shoulder misalignment. The 24-year-old hit .276 with two RBI in 21 games. ... A night after he left the game with left knee pain, 2B Dustin Pedroia was held out Friday for what manager John Farrell said was "precautionary reasons" because of the wet playing surface.

UP NEXT

Mariners: RHP Rob Whalen (0-2, 4.09 ERA in Triple-A Tacoma) will be making his major league start since last season with Atlanta. He will be 12th different starting pitcher the Mariners have used this season.

Red Sox: LHP Brian Johnson (1-0, 7.20 ERA) will be making his second major league start this year and third of his career.

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