It is impossible to overlook how missed field goals have marked this postseason.
In the wild-card round, Bengals PK Shayne Graham, the fourth-most accurate kicker in NFL history, missed field goals of 35 and 28 yards in the second half of Cincinnati's 24-14 loss to the Jets. The 35-yarder, which sailed left, could have cut the Jets' lead to 14-10 in the third quarter, and the 28-yarder bled to the right with Cincinnati trying to cut New York's lead to just a touchdown with less than four minutes left in the game. Graham had missed only five kicks in the regular season, two of which were blocked.
But Graham's struggles, untimely and out-of-the-blue as they were, paled in comparison to Chargers PK Nate Kaeding's failures on all three field-goal attempts in San Diego's 17-14 loss to the Jets in the divisional-playoff round. Granted, one of Kaeding's misses was from 57 yards at the end of the first half; hard for anyone to get too upset over that miss. However, Kaeding's other misses — a 36-yarder that traveled left of the mark in the first quarter, and a 40-yard attempt that traveled far right of the mark with the Chargers trying to claw back to within seven points in the fourth quarter — were hard to figure, especially when Kaeding had missed only three of 35 field-goal attempts in the regular season.
Then, in the AFC championship game, Jets PK Jay Feely, who made 30-of-36 FG attempts in the regular season and was 2-for-2 in New York's first two postseason wins, missed a pair of kicks in a 30-17 loss to Indianapolis. Feely missed a 44-yard FG attempt just to the right, and he was well wide right on a 52-yarder in the third quarter. After the latter miss, the Colts drove down and scored a touchdown to take the lead, which they never relinquished.
With the playoff kicking woes on our mind in the week leading up to the conference-title games, we asked a panel of league insiders, including special-teams coaches, for their thoughts on the keys for kickers to thrive in pressure situations. Panelists spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Here were some of the themes touched upon in our discussions:
Confidence is key. One personnel man told PFW that a kicker's body language is telling when it comes to assessing whether he'll be able to handle potentially high-stress situations.
"When you look at (Colts PK) Adam Vinatieri, when he steps out on the field, he expects to make the kick," the evaluator said. "And the players expect him to make the kick."
When a kicker does miss, how he reacts is key. The personnel man noted that how a kicker dealt with such situations in college can be an indicator of how he deals with them in the pros.
Every kick must be treated the same. One point the special-teams coaches polled by PFW stressed was that one of the better ways for kickers to deal with a high-pressure field-goal attempt was not to treat it like one and to stay with their normal routine. As one coach pointed out, every field-goal attempt for a kicker is high-pressure, considering how teams are apt to show little patience with a specialist going through a slump.
Also, the coach noted that a kicker who alters his approach for particularly pivotal kicks is asking for trouble.
Practice makes perfect. One of the ways handling pressure can become second nature for kickers, one special-teams coach explained, was by routinely putting kickers in pressure situations in practice.
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Of course, there is no way to completely replicate game conditions in practice. And there is no way to know whether kickers will thrive in high-stakes situations until they face them in live action.
We asked our panelists for their take on the four kickers who played in the conference-title games: the Saints' Garrett Hartley, the Vikings' Ryan Longwell, Feely and the Colts' Matt Stover (who is filling in for the vaunted Vinatieri, who has missed much of this season with a knee injury).
Stover, who drilled a 43-yard game-winning field goal to beat Tennessee in the divisional round last year, got high marks from our panel.
"Here's a guy that, when Baltimore was winning, they were winning because of their defense and his leg," said the personnel man, referring to Stover's success with the Ravens prior to 2009.
However, Hartley also has shown he can make a big kick; his 40-yard field goal in overtime propelled the Saints into the Super Bowl.
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