Patriots

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."

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

As safety Duron Harmon emerged from the showers following the Patriots 23-7 win over the Falcons, he noticed a crowd gathered by his locker. As one of the captains of the team - and a man nicknamed by teammates as “The Voice” because of his ability to articulate the right words at the right time, the affable safety is a must listen postgame. But for a change, Harmon knew the mass gathering of media wasn’t there for him - at least not yet. We were there for Malcolm Butler, who had just played his best game of the season.

“You all want to talk to Malcolm?” Harmon sang. “I’d want to talk to Malcolm too.”

Devin McCourty got in on the act as well with some good-natured chirping in Butler’s direction. Both safeties were energized by the victory but also, it seemed, by the performance of a player they’ve come to rely on in games just like this. 

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“Awww man, Malcolm. . . Malcolm was great for us,” said Harmon later. “We need that.”

It's hard not to draw the parallel between Butler having his best performance of the season a week after making two of the biggest plays in the game against the Jets. He did all this while the man who indirectly caused so much of the 28-year old’s troubles - Stephon Gilmore - hasn’t been able to play because of a concussion. Meanwhile, an undrafted player in his 6th year, Johnson Bademosi, has emerged opposite Butler to play very sound football.

“Communication,” said Butler of the team’s defensive improvements. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

Butler himself didn’t want to spend much time analyzing his own performance. That’s usually not his thing. And it wasn’t as if that performance was perfect. Far from it. But Butler’s energy was evident right from the jump. He stuck his nose in there on running plays to his side, including a terrific submarine tackle of Tevin Coleman in the opening quarter. Butler also got his fair share of Julio Jones over the course of the night. Even though he surrendered that late touchdown to the Falcons wideout, he showed not only a willingness to play the big dog, but to go right at him. That is - after all - a Butler trademark. 

“Just competing,” said Butler. “Great player; you just got to compete.”

It’s not just competing, but it’s playing with confidence, something Butler said was an issue for him in the aftermath of his snap reduction in New Orleans. But now? That seems long gone and hard to find.

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