It's the postseason, a time when the fates of NFL teams often rest on the little guy's foot.
Kickers helped decide three divisional playoff games last weekend and figure to play a big part in the conference title games and Super Bowl. Kickers tend to go from Pro Bowls to scrapheaps in minutes, but in between they're often responsible for those rings on the quarterbacks' fingers.
Matt Bryant was the only thing standing between Matt Ryan and more playoff failure Sunday, when Bryant made the game winner for the rallying Atlanta Falcons. But in the same game, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll passed on two field goal tries, partly because he didn't trust kicker Ryan Longwell, who had just been signed off the street. In a game that ended 30-28, those choices likely cost the Seahawks.
There is kicker drama elsewhere. The San Francisco 49ers' David Akers is trying to fend off late-season signee Billy Cundiff, who missed a short field goal try that would have put the Baltimore Ravens in a tie during the closing seconds of last year's AFC Championship Game loss to the New England Patriots.
And Justin Tucker, who replaced Cundiff in Baltimore, made a 47-yard field goal to lift the Ravens to an improbable double-overtime win vs. the Denver Broncos on Saturday.
Tucker's confidence instills faith in teammates, including 340-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who remembers Cundiff's miss.
"It's funny," Ngata said. "This year, I've never been nervous about Justin Tucker kicking a field goal. I kind of sat back and waited."
Then, he adds, "I got a little nervous."
That's what kickers do. They make people nervous.
But it's not just kickers. Snappers and holders can't err, either. With the season's biggest games ahead, three special-teamers shared their stories.
Frozen in playoff history is the image of kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter Ken Walter feverishly clearing snow from a square foot of grass from which a dynasty would be launched.
Vinatieri kicked the tying field goal to send the Patriots to overtime against the Oakland Raiders on Jan. 19, 2002, in the snow-whipped divisional playoffs. The Patriots won three of the next four Super Bowls.
While teammates were helping the kickers, almost everyone forgot about long snapper Lonie Paxton, in his second NFL season, with a trip to the AFC title game riding on his frozen, meaty hands.
"I was using my cleats with some of the other guys on the team to kind of brush away the snow in the spot where I was going to snap it," said Paxton, now retired. "The Raiders guys were kicking snow right back on the spot. They were talking to me, too. They said a bunch of stuff you wouldn't want your mother and grandmother to hear."
It would be the most high-pressure snap of Paxton's career, which included two Super Bowl game-winning kicks.
"Everyone thought it was an unmakable kick except us," he said.
Vinatieri kicked the line drive through the uprights, and the Patriots went on to win the game in overtime. Nobody thanked Paxton for his perfect placement. The holder, Walter, "was hugging Adam trying to get on TV instead," Paxton says.
When the game ended, Paxton lay at the 5-yard line, gleefully making snow angels in 6 inches of powder.
"All I wanted was to be perfect for the guys that played 60 to 70 plays a game," Paxton says. "I had more anxiety about becoming a champion and reaching one of my (boyhood) dreams than fail. It was more about, "Look how close we are to glory.'"
The Ravens came just as close, if not closer, a year ago. With a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, Cundiff and punter Sam Koch set up for a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the score. The Patriots were reeling but were bailed out by Lee Evans' drop of a touchdown pass that would have sealed the victory for the Ravens. But when it came time to kick a field goal Cundiff could have kicked in his sleep, he wasn't quite ready, unnerved by a scoreboard glitch.
Koch, the holder, wasn't ready, either. Though the Ravens had a timeout to collect themselves, neither Koch nor Cundiff thought to use it.
"It was like, 'Let's do this right now,'" Koch says. "Everything was a mess. So when we got out there, I just wasn't thinking clearly. I was thinking, 'We've got to hurry up and get this ball snapped.' I wasn't really thinking about anything else other than doing my job."
Koch says he and Cundiff had about seven seconds between getting settled in position and the snap.
Kick: wide left.
Koch wishes he'd taken a timeout but rarely thinks about the ramifications of that kick. Cundiff declined to be interviewed for this story.
"It was something that was done in the past," Koch says. "It would have been nice if it turned out the other way."
Koch remains on the roster, but Cundiff didn't get a shot at redemption. He lost his job in training camp to Tucker, a rookie. After a short stint with the Washington Redskins, Cundiff joined the 49ers on Jan. 1, but he hasn't been able to unseat Akers. Koch says they don't discuss the kick.
"It's just something that we move on and learn from and hope we don't do it again," Koch says.
Lawrence Tynes made a pair of game-winning kicks in overtime of NFC Championship Games (a year ago and in January 2008), but he says the most pressure he ever felt on a field goal try came with his New York Giants up by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter of a divisional playoff game.
It wasn't a long kick: 35 yards. But it was December in Wisconsin, and across the sideline stood Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and an offense Tynes knew was capable of quick scores.
"You absolutely have to take the other offense into consideration," he says. "They can put points up so quickly. Having that two-score advantage with the way we rush the passer was a big, big deal for us."
But how could a kick to go up two scores on a divisional game involve more anxiety than what went down two weeks later? On a wet field in San Francisco, Tynes hit a 31-yarder in overtime, sending the Giants to the Super Bowl. This after an unexpected delay-of-game penalty and a 49ers timeout meant to ice him.
But Tynes had been there before. His overtime game winner in the NFC Championship Game in January 2008 - a 47-yarder which followed two misses - launched the Giants to their first of two Super Bowl victories in five seasons.
That experience made the San Francisco kick feel like old hat.
"It's easy to say that that's the one that was the most pressure packed, but I didn't think it was," Tynes says. "I said to myself, 'I've done this four years ago. I'm going to do it again.' I just felt much more relaxed on that one as opposed to kicking in Green Bay when it's 18 degrees."
If he had missed that 2008 kick? If his confidence were diminished and his résumé tarnished by three missed kicks in one playoff game?
No Super Bowl rings for Tynes and maybe no job.
"I probably wouldn't be playing in the NFL," he says. "At least not for the Giants. It's what we signed up for. You've got to embrace it. You gotta love it."
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