FOXBOROUGH — The usual suspects will likely play a large role in determining the Patriots’ playoff fate on Sunday against the Texans: Tom Brady, Stevan Ridley, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork, and an improving defense.
But depending on how the game plays out, whether the Patriots advance to the AFC Championship game or not could hinge on the right foot of kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who has never been called on to kick a last-second, potential game-winning postseason field goal with the Patriots trailing.
The 28-year-old, seventh-year pro from Madison, Miss., by way of the University of Memphis, says he definitely won’t shy away from such a breath-holding opportunity, should it be presented. But he also wouldn’t mind if his services aren’t needed should the Patriots beat the Texans handily once again, similar to their 42-14 regular-season home win on Dec. 10.
“It’s all about winning, it’s not a game where you can be selfish,” Gostkowski said. “It’s a team game, and we all win or lose together. That’s just how I’ve been brought up playing all different kinds of sports.”
By the numbers — is there any other way to judge a kicker? — Gostkowski has had a solid season. No missed extra points, 29 field goals made, 2 for 2 on tries of 50 yards or more, and a league-high 153 points, which trails only Gino Cappelletti’s 155 in 1964 on the team’s all-time season list.
Possibly overlooked: Gostkowski also handles kickoffs for the Patriots, and his 52 touchbacks were the fourth most in the NFL this season.
But Gostkowski has also missed six field goal attempts, which matches his most in a season. His 82.9 percent success rate on field goals this season is slightly behind his career average of 84.2.
His postseason field goal conversion rate is a little better. In five trips through the playoffs (he was on injured reserve two seasons ago, when Shayne Graham, now Houston’s kicker, filled in), Gostkowski has made 14 of 16 field goal tries (87.9 percent), including all five of his attempts last year. He’s also never missed an extra point in the playoffs.
If the Patriots find themselves down late against the Texans – or in the AFC Championship game or the Super Bowl, should they advance — Gostkowski might be asked to kick a game-winning field goal. He says it’s a thought he doesn’t dwell on much.
“I just don’t think that way. You’re just ready, and hopefully take advantage of each situation you get put in,” Gostkowski said. “You practice, and if it happens, it happens. Obviously, you’re prepared for any situation.”
Like goaltenders in hockey, kickers can be a quirky bunch. Gostkowski prefers another word: “routined.” No matter if he’s playing in the first preseason game, or the Super Bowl (which he’s done twice).
“There’s pressure on every game, so [the playoffs are] another game, with just a lot more consequences,” Gostkowski said. “I think it helps you intensify your focus a little bit, so you try to use that to your advantage. You never want to worry about consequences, just doing your job, and control what you can control. That’s just how I approach things.”
He missed a 42-yard game-winning attempt with one second left in a 20-18 home-opening loss to Arizona, missed two field goals in a 52-28 blowout win at Buffalo, then went through a stretch where he missed kicks in three straight games. While nobody’s perfect — every kicker in the NFL this season missed at least one field goal try — Gostkowski’s misses might have raised some concern among Patriots’ faithful, but they don’t appear to have shaken his confidence.
Or those on the Patriots’ sideline.
“I have a lot of confidence in Stephen,” special teams coach Scott O’Brien said earlier this season, during Gostkowski’s three-game stretch where he had a miss every week. “He’s missed a couple that he’d like to have back. There’s probably nobody more disappointed when he does miss it than himself, but I don’t think there’s any concern about the confidence. He’s a self-starter, he’s very competitive, he works very hard at it.”
Like defensive backs who get beat occasionally, kickers must have short memories, especially after misses, because they might be needed again to end the team’s next offensive drive.
Playoff games are even more magnified, and Gostkowski acknowledges the pressure. How does he minimize it?
“Not talking to you guys, maybe?” he said, laughing. “Nobody puts more pressure on themselves than I do myself, so anything that anyone says or does doesn’t affect me as much as my own standards and goals.
“Just like every other player on this team, I want to win. You want to do well, you work hard to make sure that you can come through for the team whenever you get a chance to play.”
Will he get the chance? The Patriots passed on what would have been a 49-yard field goal try by Gostkowski in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLII, didn’t convert on fourth and 13, and lost by 3. That was then. This is now.
“No season’s the same, anything can happen,” Gostkowski said. “I just show up and play. These opportunities don’t come all the time, and we’ve been spoiled if you’ve played here for a while. You just want to take advantage of the situation, because you never know when it’s going to be your last playoff game, so you want to do well.”