Most games come down to a handful of key plays. Playoff games are no different. And because the tension is ramped up even further, teams often play more conservatively and will settle for field goals.
So quarterbacks and defenses and turnover ratios might be the key deciders when it comes to playoff superiority, but kickers are big factors, too.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the playoffs’ 12 kickers and how they are faring heading into the postseason, ranked by their performance heading into the playoffs:
1. Vikings PK Blair Walsh — Is he the best kicker in the game right now? Ten-of-10 on 50-yarders this season. Kicked the Vikings into the playoffs with a game-winner Sunday. Only three misses all season. Eleven made kicks in a row. Even with a little bit of the yips in Weeks 12 and 13, having a 30-yarder blocked and missing a 42-yarder, Walsh has been All-Pro-worthy in his first season. But he’s a rookie. Will he tighten up? There’s no real evidence of it to date.
2. Broncos PK Matt Prater — Winning home-field advantage means that Prater gets to kick in Denver for the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl. And that means he’ll be kicking at a friendly altitude, where Prater made 88.9 percent of his kicks this season. His only home misses this season — were from 47 and 55 yards away, both in the second half of the season.
3. Redskins PK Kai Forbath — Yes, he missed a makeable kick in Week 17 that appeared to loom large in a playoff-like atmosphere. But Forbath had been lights out — 17-of-17 on FG attempts before the regular-season finale — and so matter of fact in his approach to doing so, you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. This is an explosive offense, but you never know if Robert Griffin’s knee will hold up or if Alfred Morris is going to continue carrying the load. The Redskins need Forbath to perform the way he was prior to Week 17.
4. Seahawks PK Steven Hauschka — He has bounced around the league for years but has found a home in Seattle where he has made 49-of-57 attempts the past two seasons, with only three misses this season. He had a 50-yarder blocked in Week One, pushed a 51-yarder wide left in Week Seven against the 49ers and came up short on a 61-yarder at Detroit the following week. And Hauschka hasn’t missed since — he’s up to 10 kicks in a row, including two on Sunday (from 43 and 49 yards out). Distance is his biggest concern; he has made only one kick longer than 49 yards.
5. Patriots PK Stephen Gostkowski — The Patriots are notorious for being aggressive and going for it in the playoffs, although Gostkowski was big in the 2011 AFC title game (3-for-3 on FG attempts) when Bill Belichick went surprisingly conservative. This season, Gostkowski has been very good (29-of-35 FGs) after overcoming a slight hiccup in Weeks 11-13 (when he missed three FG attempts). He has made eight kicks in a row heading into the playoffs.
6. Colts PK Adam Vinatieri — Best playoff résumé for a kicker ever? Three game-winners in Super Bowls is a pretty good cake topper, and it might one day get him into Canton. These days, Vinatieri is a good dome kicker and pretty much automatic inside 50 yards. However, as the Colts are the No. 5 seed, they are not likely to be at home, although he did hit a 50-yard kick outside at the Jets in Week Six and a 48-yarder at Kansas City in Week 16. After an injury-plagued 2009 season, Vinatieri has missed only 13 FG attempts the past three seasons.
7. Ravens PK Justin Tucker — The rookie has been a huge addition this season, making 30-of-33 FG attempts and making 11 in a row before missing wide left Sunday against the Bengals. Tucker has made 54- and 56-yard attempts this season and a 38-yard winner in overtime against the Chargers, but he almost missed (some said he did) a 27-yard game-winner against the Patriots back in Week Three.
8. Falcons PK Matt Bryant — Bryant, 37, won the respect of his teammates a few weeks ago when, responding to Panthers DE Greg Hardy’s trash talking following an upset of the Falcons, Bryant told Hardy, “Enjoy watching us in January.” Bryant has made 33-of-38 FG attempts this season, but it is interesting to note that has has missed three of his attempts from 40-49 yards but is 4-for-4 from beyond 50. His two missed kicks at home against Dallas were a little surprising, but he’s mostly dependable.
9. Bengals PK Josh Brown — He made 3-of-3 FG attempts in Week 17, which improved him to 11-of-12 on the season since taking over for Mike Nugent, who was officially placed on I.R. this past week with a right calf strain. Brown struggled in 2011 with the Rams, ending a nine-year run in the NFC West, but the 33-year-old has been a good late addition for the Bengals in four games this season.
10. Texans PK Shayne Graham — Won a kicking duel in training camp by default after rookie Randy Bullock tore his ACL. Graham has been accurate, missing only seven of his 38 attempts, but hasn't been called upon to attempt many pressure kicks this season. Also, he once missed two big FG attempts (one a 28-yarder that would have made it a one-score game) when he was a Bengal and they lost a playoff game to the Jets in 2010. Graham was on four rosters in 2011. His end-of-half kick against the Colts in Week 15 was laughably bad.
11. Packers PK Mason Crosby — The boo birds have gone into brief hibernation as Crosby has been perfect (4-for-4 FGs) the past two games. But that was after he had missed 12 of his 29 previous attempts and had incited the rage of Packers Nation, who wanted him gone — more than once. Credit Mike McCarthy for sticking with Crosby and negotiating a tricky bout of struggles from his kicker, but is Crosby out of the woods yet? We’ll find out. The Packers have some interesting strategy decisions heading into the postseason.
12. 49ers PK David Akers — The biggest concern for the 49ers heading into the playoffs might be having a young quarterback or not having DT Justin Smith healthy. But right behind those would have to be the state of Akers, who missed two FG attempts Sunday (wide left from 44 and 40 yards) to push his season total to a stunning 29-for-42, by far the worst of his 14-year career. This from the man who hit a 63-yard field goal in Week One and was the 2011 All-Pro at the position. "Well, it's his job to make the field goals, you know," head coach Jim Harbaugh said Sunday. Too true. And it appears more mental than physical. Akers missed two of his three attempts in a six-point Eagles playoff loss two seasons ago when he was with Philly. Harbaugh said he will "evaluate" the position before hosting a divisional playoff game on Jan. 12. Could Akers get cut before then?