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Gostkowski poised to pop in the clutch

INDIANAPOLIS -- He has been here before, against the same team, with the same stakes -- a Super Bowl championship -- riding on the game.

Patriots place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski understands his margin of error is razor-thin Sunday night, recognizes the Patriots and the New York Giants are closely matched and the game could be decided in the final minutes, quite possibly by his right foot.

His profession hinges on black and white moments, single actions that could result in his emerging as a true sports hero -- or a billy (Cundiff) goat.

If Gostkowski stopped to consider the immense pressure involved with his role on this football team, it would surely unnerve him.

"But I feel I do a good job of not getting overwhelmed by the situation," he said.

The truth is this: While Gostkowski has proved to be the most accurate kicker in Patriots history and only the second player in NFL history to score 500 points or more in his first four seasons, he simply has not been afforded the opportunity to make many clutch kicks for his team.

In six seasons with the club, Gostkowski has kicked only two game-winning field goals. The first was in his rookie season, on Jan. 14, 2007, a 31-yard field goal with 1:10 left to play that enabled the Patriots to upend the San Diego Chargers and advance to the AFC Championship Game.

The second was a 35-yard overtime kick against the Ravens in October 2010 that led to a 23-20 Patriots victory. Gostkowski also kicked a 24-yarder with less than two minutes left in regulation of that game to force OT.

He hasn't missed critical late-game field goals; that hasn't been the issue. The more curious question is why he hasn't been in position more times to make a difference.

That brings us back to the New York Giants and the last time they met New England in the Super Bowl, at the end of the 2007 season.

In that game, shortly after the Patriots scored to go ahead 7-3, Gostkowski's kickoff sailed out of bounds, resulting in a penalty and optimal field position for the Giants at their own 40-yard line.

It was that hiccup, say former players who were on that team, that influenced coach Bill Belichick to go for it on fourth-and-13 from the Giants' 31-yard line late in the game, rather than allow his young kicker to attempt a pressure-packed 48-yard field goal.

The strategy backfired when Tom Brady's pass to Jabar Gaffney was incomplete.

Four years have passed since that decision, and Gostkowski insists he hasn't given it a second thought.

"I don't take it personally," Gostkowski said. "Who am I to tell Bill Belichick what to do? He's forgotten more football than I'll ever know.

"If [Brady's pass] had been complete and we had gone on to score a touchdown, we wouldn't even be talking about this. Stuff happens. Everything is not going to be perfect.

"If I would have let that upset me, I might not have been ready to make a kick later in the game.

"One thing I pride myself on is if I miss a kick, I'm confident I'll make the next one."

Gostkowski has been with the New England Patriots since they used a fourth-round draft pick to select him in 2006. He replaced the wildly popular Adam Vinatieri, a kicker so successful he might actually have a shot at being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an elite men's club that traditionally excludes specialists.

Vinatieri cast a long shadow during his tenure in New England. He nailed 20 game-winning kicks in 10 seasons with the Patriots, including eight overtime winners (see accompanying chart).

His most dramatic moments included kicking a 45-yard field goal against Oakland in the blinding snow to send the "Tuck Rule" game into overtime, then driving a 23-yard field goal through the uprights to win it for the upstart Patriots. During that same postseason, Vinatieri drilled a 48-yard field goal with no time remaining to lead the Patriots past the favored St. Louis Rams 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Vinatieri did it again in Super Bowl XXXVIII, hitting a 41-yarder with 4 seconds left on the clock to give New England a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

He has become the standard by which all clutch kickers are measured, which initially presented an awkward and uncomfortable environment for the rookie trying to replace him. While Gostkowski might have been testy in his early years about constant references to Vinatieri's heroics, he has long since outgrown that.

"I don't worry about any kickers except myself," he said.

In his first postseason, Gostkowski was a perfect 8-for-8 on field goals. He currently lays claim to the longest field goal at Gillette Stadium, a 52-yard kick against the Chicago Bears. He booms most of his kickoffs deep into the end zone, something the Patriots felt made him an upgrade over Vinatieri, who now calls Indianapolis home. Gostkowski also recovered fully from a thigh injury that landed him on injured reserve last season.

Belichick has repeatedly stated he has full confidence in Gostkowski. He might have a chance to prove it in Sunday's Super Bowl tilt.

If the coach calls on him, he'll be ready, Gostkowski promises. If not, he'll cheer from the sidelines like everyone else.

"I don't go out there thinking, 'This kick is bigger than the last one,"' Gostkowski said. "If I miss a kick in the first quarter and we lose by 3, I'll get criticized either way.

"I just don't let this kind of stuff consume every thought of my day. It's a pretty simple thing I do. It's mostly played between the ears."

Gostkowski spent considerable time at Lucas Oil Stadium earlier this week attempting to get a feel for the background he'll encounter when he lines up to kick. He prefers to pick out a target, whether it's a banner or a specific point in the stands, to focus on as he prepares to launch the football through the uprights.

"It's a great stadium visually," Gostkowski said. "We have to be able to kick anywhere, but it's a lot easier going from outside into the dome, rather than the other way around."

The 2011 season proved to be another model in consistency for Gostkowski. His success has been enhanced by a reliable Danny Aiken, who has handled field goal snaps without incident. Gostkowski hit 84.8 percent of his field goals (28-of-33), including a perfect 4-for-4 in the playoffs. He has missed only one PAT in his entire career (289-of-290) and continues to pin opposing teams in their own end with his deep kickoffs.

There has been nearly 14 days of bluster since the Patriots and Giants punched their tickets to the Super Bowl. We have dissected the quarterbacks, evaluated the defensive lines, tried desperately to crawl inside the brains of two proud, old-school coaches.

All of them will have a significant effect on the outcome of the game.

But sometimes, when the clock dwindles to single digits, there is just one player with a strong and steady foot who can effectively win it or lose it for his team.

"True," Gostkowski said, shrugging. "As kickers, we know what it's about when we sign up for this. In every sport, there are heroes and goats, not just the Super Bowl.

"The stage might be bigger, but the goal posts are the same."

So is the team -- and the stakes -- from the last time Gostkowski landed in the championship game.

The kicker is hoping for a different outcome. He also wouldn't mind if this time, he actually has a chance to make the difference.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.