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WEEK 7 in the NFL

Feet, don't fail them

The closer NFL games get, the more vital kickers become, and all that matters is what they've done lately

October 22, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

They cherish theirs in Seattle, curse theirs in Phoenix, and cringe in Foxborough every time theirs takes the field.

Keep in mind, of course, this could all change next week.

NFL kickers have always been important to the success of their teams, but as games get closer -- a byproduct of the league's competitive balance -- every field goal becomes essential. Last weekend, eight of 13 games were decided by three points or fewer.

Among the memorable scenes:

Seattle's Josh Brown kicked a 54-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Seahawks to a 30-28 victory over the Rams in St. Louis. Minutes earlier, he had made a pair of 49-yarders. That made him the first player in NFL history to have three field goals of that length in the fourth quarter.

"I want these guys to believe in me," he said after the game.

And they do. For now.

But swing down to Arizona, and it's a different story. All-Pro kicker Neil Rackers, who set a league record last season with 40 field goals, blew a chance Monday night to clinch one of the biggest upsets in Cardinals history. He missed a 40-yard attempt with 47 seconds to play that would have knocked off the undefeated Chicago Bears.

"I'm sick for these guys," Rackers said in the locker room.

Fans of the New England Patriots might be feeling a little queasy too, ever since their team let Adam Vinatieri, a.k.a. Mr. Clutch, saunter off to Indianapolis as a free agent. After a failed experiment with Martin Gramatica, the Patriots turned to a rookie, Stephen Gostkowski, who had two of his first four attempts blocked.

In the early going, the rookie barely kept his job. He saved himself in the Patriots' last game, a 20-10 victory over Miami, by making a pair of field goals off the clumpy, sandy turf at Gillette Stadium.

"I wasn't panicking," he told reporters. "There's no time to panic this early in the year. I'm just trying to do better and better as each game goes by. That's my main goal, not to worry about just one or two kicks here or there."

Those one or two kicks, however, might be the difference-makers. The margin between the NFL's good and bad teams is just that narrow.

Check out the Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, for instance. Both are potential division champions, both have winning records, yet both have been outscored by opponents this season.

And where would the New Orleans Saints be without John Carney? He has played a vital role in their 5-1 season, including kicking a 31-yard field goal as time expired in their 27-24 victory over Philadelphia, by far their most eye-opening triumph of the season.

Then again, every kicker can be great and horrible -- often in the same game.

"In your head you can start thinking you're too good," said Brown, who on the downside has had three kicks blocked, the most in the league. "That's when you get in trouble."

Brown has plenty of people to keep him humble. Because kickers generally aren't team stars, and Brown is of average size, he isn't recognized everywhere he goes. If people do find out he plays for the Seahawks, they often mistake him for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

Occasionally, if he goes unrecognized, Brown will engage in conversation about the Seahawks. "What do you think of their kicker?" he'll ask. He's interested to hear the responses, and he says most are positive. He even has met some of his best pals that way.

"I've baited people in restaurants like that," he said. "Either they'll like you or they don't. It can turn into a fun conversation."

Fun, that is, when things are going well. And they are at the moment.

The morning after returning from St. Louis, he sat in his regular coffee shop and basked in the afterglow of victory. People know him there; they don't confuse him for Hasselbeck.

"I got a lot of waves, a lot of handshakes, and some fist bumps," Brown said. "It was great. I just sat there and had a coffee and read the paper."

A life of ease, relaxation and self-assuredness.

Until the next kick.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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