His teammates refer to him affectionately as "Meat." Some New England fans have come to call him the "Ghost." But whatever he's known as, Patriots rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski was "the man" Sunday evening in San Diego when his 31-yard field goal with just over a minute to play propelled the New England past the Chargers and into an AFC Championship Game battle with the Colts.
According to published reports crediting the Elias Sports Bureau, Gostkowski's game-winning boot was the first in the playoffs by a rookie kicker since Jim O'Brien helped the Colts past the Cowboys 16-13 on a 32-yarder in Super Bowl V.
The kick was also the first game winner of Gostkowski's career, coming at the end of his first season replacing New England kicking legend and Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri. And in the perfect of all storylines, the winning difference meant the fresh-faced, fourth-round pick out of Memphis will get a chance to go head-to-head with the man he replaced this Sunday afternoon on the RCA Dome turf.
Let the AFC title game drama and hype begin, but just don't expect Gostkowski to be a willing participant in such pregame ponderings. The Patriots, according to the rookie kicker himself, have "restricted what I can say," this season. Maybe that's why his postgame comments just moments removed from the biggest kick of his life were anything but remarkable.
"I don't think about that stuff," Gostkowski responded after Sunday's win when asked about the pressure and drama surrounding a game-wining playoff kick. "It seemed like any other kick to me."
And maybe that's why the rookie has been able to replace a future Hall of Famer and local legend without much drama. After a stretch early in the season in which he missed three consecutive attempts, including having two field goals blocked, Gostkowski closed out the year splitting the uprights with 18 of his final 21 attempts. All told he hit on 20-of-26 attempts (76.9 pct.) for the season, finishing with 103 points.
He has also now hit on all six of his field-goal attempts in the postseason. Beyond the game winner against the Chargers he also booted the longest field goal in Patriots postseason history, moving past what even Vinatieri did in his time in New England with a 50-yarder in the first quarter.
His soft-spoken confidence and impressive leg have built a growing confidence among his teammates. Trying to replace Vinatieri, who bolted New England after tumultuous contract negations for the controlled confines of the RCA Dome, is as unenviable task as there is. But Gostkowski, bolstered by his first game-winning kick and first taste of postseason heroics, appears to be well on his way.
"He's not Adam. He's Stephen," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said after the divisional playoff win. "And he's a pretty good kicker."
"It was Brady and Vinatieri. Now it's Brady and 'The Rookie,'" Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour said with a smile.
And this weekend the new dynamic postseason duo gets to face a equally new, albeit more proven combo across the field against a common postseason foe as Peyton Manning and Vinatieri are now teamed up for the Colts. Vinatieri may be the best clutch kicker in NFL history, and he has the chance to put Manning over the top in the postseason as he helped Brady do so often in the past, but the Patriots like their chances with their own new game-winning kicker.
Patriots-Colts. Brady-Manning. And now, Vinatieri-Gostkowski. Let the AFC Championship Game hype truly kick into gear.
|New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski kicks a third quarter field goal against the San Diego Chargers in their AFC Divisional playoff football game in San Diego, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)|
--WR Jabar Gaffney has enjoyed quite a start to his NFL postseason career in New England's pair of playoff wins. After catching a team-high eight passes for 104 yards in the wild card win over the Jets that marked Gaffney's career postseason debut, he followed up the effort by tying a career high with 10 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's win over the Chargers.
--DB Chad Scott played a quietly key role in Sunday's win over the Chargers, serving as New England's primary nickel back and drawing coverage of All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates on third down for most of the evening. Gates finished the loss with six catches for 61 yards as San Diego converted just five of 14 third-down attempts (36 percent).
--WR Chad Jackson was not a part of New England's three wide receiver sets that keyed the divisional round road victory over the Chargers. The rookie second-round pick was dressed for the game but did not play a single snap. Jabar Gaffney (10 catches, 103 yards, 1 TD), Reche Caldwell (7 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD) and Troy Brown (5 catches, 39 yards) drew the primary wide receiver roles.
--S Artrell Hawkins continued to be a fill-in force in the New England secondary that lost starting safety Eugene Wilson earlier this season and has had to go without Rodney Harrison (knee) for the first two games of the postseason. Hawkins finished second on the team with seven tackles in the win over the Chargers, including a sack of Philip Rivers for an 11-yard loss.
--P Todd Sauerbrun played an important field-position role in the early going against San Diego, punting out of his own end with decent success. Sauerbrun finished the divisional round win with a 44.1-yard average on seven punts with a long of 56, one kick downed inside the 20 and an impressive 39.3-yard net average.