EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – There were six seconds remaining and New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was lining up for a 54-yard game-winning field goal when defensive end Rob Ninkovich looked along the sideline to gauge the confidence of his teammates.
“A couple of guys were on a knee, and I said, ‘There’s no need to pray with this guy.’ He’s the best kicker in the league,” Ninkovich said.
Still, as much as Gostkowski has been lauded for his work in earning Pro Bowl berths in 2013 and 2014, this situation was different from any other in his 10-year career. Yes, he has had game-winning kicks, but a 54-yarder with the Patriots down by two points with seconds remaining to keep an undefeated season alive?
“I can think of several big kicks he’s made, but this one – in this fashion, in this situation -- it’s a big one,” said special-teams captain Matthew Slater, who has been with the club since 2008, two years after Gostkowski was drafted in the fourth round.
The kicker Gostkowski replaced, Adam Vinatieri, was known for his clutch kicks. The “Snow Bowl” kick against the Oakland Raiders in the AFC divisional round in 2002 might be the greatest field goal in NFL history, and Vinatieri's Super Bowl-winning field goals further cemented his reputation as one of the best of all time.
Gostkowski hasn’t been in the same situations, in part because of the Patriots' high-scoring offense; he has seven game-winning field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime, but this marked just the second that was delivered when the Patriots were trailing. Still, few can argue with Gostkowski's consistency. On Sunday, he broke Vinatieri’s franchise record for field goals; the 54-yard game-winner was No. 264.
Gostkowski has now made 30 consecutive field goals, dating to Nov. 30, 2014. Going back to the start of 2014, he is 56-of-58, and he's 94-of-99 since the start of 2013.
“That’s the guy you want out there,” coach Bill Belichick said. “You want your best player in that situation – an opportunity to win the game for you. … Stephen made a great kick.”
“Me and Ryan were looking at each other smiling on the sideline,” said Gostkowski, who is now 17-of-21 from 50 yards or more in his career, the highest percentage in NFL history (minimum 15 attempts).
As the Patriots' offense marched on its final drive to set up the kick, Gostkowski shared that he was singing a song in his head “to distract everything else.” He wouldn’t reveal the song.
“I try to get in ultra-focus zone,” he said. “There are times where you’re in the zone and everything moves in slow motion, and there’s sometimes when everything goes really fast and you have to slow yourself down.
“All I really think about is, 'Don’t try to kick the ball too hard,' because a lot of times when I missed kicks, it was because I tried to kill it. I just try to think of a smooth swing, being slow and under control, and making the kick.”
Gostkowski felt the football carried better to that end of the field and called conditions calm for this time of year in the Northeast.
The kick had some reflecting on the Patriots’ loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, when, in the third quarter with the Patriots leading 7-3, Belichick passed on the chance to try a 48-yard field goal with Gostkowski and instead went for it on fourth-and-13.
That seems like an eternity ago, and on Sunday, Gostkowski joked about how he wasn’t used to holding postgame news conferences like Belichick or Tom Brady. His humble approach came through when he said, “You’re one kick away from being Public Enemy No. 1 … one play away from trending on Twitter as the No. 1 loser in America.”
On Sunday, Gostkowski delivered arguably the No. 1 field goal of his career. His presence at the interview podium, as he wore a Memphis Tigers shirt as a shout-out to his alma mater, was a reminder of how his 54-yard game-winner fell into a different category than most of his 263 other field goals.
“It’s fun to be in those situations,” he said. “They don’t come up very often, especially long kicks like that.”