Being a kicker in the NFL is hard enough.
Doing it for a New England Patriots franchise that has enjoyed some of the most clutch kicking performances in NFL playoff history is something entirely different.
Such is the position Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski is in as New England prepares for what could be a close Super Bowl matchup between its No. 1 ranked offense and Atlanta’s No. 1 defense.
The Patriots have won their four Super Bowls by a total of just 13 points, and are favored by just three over the Falcons. In such a game it could come down to which team has the best kicker.
The successor to Adam Vinatieri, who was responsible for game-winning kicks in each of the Patriots’ Super Bowl wins in 2002 and 2004, Gostkowski has been a steadying force since Bill Belichick used a fourth-round pick on him in 2006.
But this season has brought uncharacteristic accuracy issues for the 33-year-old. Gostkowski missed three field goals and two extra-points in the Patriots first seven games of 2016 — his most missed field goals since 2012. The extra-point misses were also his first since his rookie season. He has eight game-winning kicks in his career, but just one in the playoffs — back in 2007. But he says his confidence is high heading into his fourth Super Bowl.
“You know the pressures of the game and you want it so bad, but it’s easy to compartmentalize and focus on doing your job instead of all the craziness around it,” he said. “If that will help me play better, good. I hope so.”
That approach has certainly worked for him over the latter part of the season. He’s missed just two field goals over the last 11 games.
In New England’s AFC championship win over Pittsburgh, Gostkowski hit three field goals to pass Vinatieri and become the franchise’s all-time leader in made playoff field goals. So no matter what happens Sunday, Gostkowski’s place in Patriots’ history is secure.
Special teams captain Matt Slater said even when his kicker was struggling early, he never worried about him getting back on track.
“I don’t think much needs to be said between Stephen and I,” Slater said. “We’ve had several conversations over the years about these types of situations and it is what it is. It’s football and things like this are going to happen.”
Even still, Gostkowski has taken the bitter with the sweet this season.
Though he’s been in several high-pressure moments since the first time he walked on an NFL field 11 years ago, there’s also still a feeling of newness.
“I’d say it’s more enjoyable,” Gostkowski said. “Because the first Super Bowl we had the whole undefeated thing going on, so it was even crazier. …My first time I wasn’t married, I had no kids. This was all I had. It was a lot harder to turn off.”
Having a wife and three kids since then served as a nice buffer much of the pageantry and deluge of media that follows a team throughout Super Bowl week.
“Now we’ve been to a couple, we’ve won one,” he said. “It’s easier to take this stuff and concentrate on the game.”
That’s the case even as the noise level may be as high as it’s ever been this time around.
Along with the usual spotlight that shines on the Patriots, they’re preparing for a Falcons’ team that is 12-0 this season when scoring 31 or more points.
The most important marker for Gostkowski entering this week, though, is that he is back to full strength of sitting a day of practice during the Patriots’ open week following the conference championship win.
“It took a while to get to feeling strong again,” he said. “Luckily all I gotta do is kick a ball.”
The Patriots are 4-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points this season. But they haven’t needed Gostkowski’s leg to pull out many of their wins.
Only one of New England’s games during the 2016 season have been decided by three points or fewer, its 23-21 season-opening win over Arizona. In that game Gostkowski connected on what proved to be the deciding 32-yard field goal with 3:44 to play in the game.
Though he thinks experience will be on his side if his number is called with the game on the line Sunday, he’s not trying to think about what might happen.
“I don’t know if you ever get comfortable. This team is just focused on playing and winning,” he said. “It all starts with coach Belichick keeping our focus on the game and our task at hand…When you do that, you simplify everything.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.