NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
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."
Where once there was the unbeatable Patriots playoff lineup for success of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri, there's a new recipe that has led to the same winning ways. "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.
--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.
Savor the moment and take advantage of the opportunity.
That's just a little bit of the advice Tony Dungy is expected to give his football team this week as the 14-4 Indianapolis Colts head into Sunday's AFC Championship Game with the New England Patriots. New England qualified for the rematch with the Colts with a 24-21 come-from-behind win over top-seeded San Diego on Sunday.
While Dungy has given Indianapolis' players some much needed time off after Saturday's 15-6 AFC divisional win over Baltimore (no meetings or practices are scheduled until Wednesday), he already knows the approach he wants to take when the Colts begin their preparations for the 14-4 Patriots.
"I probably feel more excited (about looking ahead to the title game) than the players because I do know. I've coached 26 years and really only had three or four times to be in this position. It's not guaranteed," he said.
"You are not going to get there every year. You feel like you really need to take advantage of it and I do realize how hard it is to get here. A lot of things have to fall right for you. I think our coaches are very fired up. I am personally and looking forward to this week of practice."
Many of the Colts have been in this position before, playing New England in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. This time, however, the two teams will face off at the RCA Dome, where the Patriots haven't played since a Nov. 30, 2003 meeting (which New England won 38-34).
Still, there are enough younger players on the Indianapolis roster this season that Dungy is quite aware that playing at a high level and keeping mistakes to a minimum will be crucial.
"It is tough, but that's who is going to get the job done. If you can do the things you normally do, can function well, handle kickoffs, protect your punter and all the mundane things when the stakes are really high, that's what it takes," he said.
"Elevating your game to a different level because it's a bigger game. Being able to do the things you did in Week 1. That's what we stressed all year and hopefully we'll be able to do that. That is the crux of the matter."
--QB Peyton Manning had 31 touchdown passes and nine interceptions over 16 regular-season games. But in the Colts' last two playoff wins over Kansas City and Baltimore, Manning has just one touchdown pass and five interceptions.
--RB Dominic Rhodes has accepted his new role as the backup to rookie RB Joseph Addai. Rhodes had started all 16 regular season games for the Colts, but the team made the move to Addai at the start of the postseason. He has responded by bringing Indianapolis some much needed punch to the running game. Rhodes' hard-running style kept a couple late drives going against Baltimore last week. "The big thing, I thought (running backs coach) Gene Huey did a great job of explaining to him what we were doing. It wasn't a demotion, and he understood that," said coach Tony Dungy.
"We were just going to start the game with Joseph, and Dom has ended up finishing the last two games and making some big fourth-quarter runs. But he knew he was going to still be involved, he knew he was going to get a lot of carries and be in in critical times. So it really hasn't been that much different. They both still split the carries relatively evenly."
--WR Marvin Harrison has been bothered by a wrist injury for most of the 2006 season but has continued to play. Harrison has opted to wait until after the season to have the wrist looked at more closely. He has played with the wrist taped up and it hasn't seemed to have affected on on-the-field performance.
--WR Reggie Wayne has hauled in five touchdown passes in nine postseason games since he has been with the Colts. Wayne had a team-leading five receptions for 51 yards in the AFC divisional win over Baltimore.
--TE Dallas Clark has become Mr. Versatility for the Colts offense. With WR Brandon Stokley out for the year with a torn Achilles tendon and WR Ricky Proehl hobbled by a sore hamstring, Clark has been used more as a slot receiver during the past two playoff games. He has hauled in 11 passes in playoff wins over Kansas City and the Ravens.
--LB Rob Morris has played well since being moved to outside linebacker late in the regular season. Morris has been a middle linebacker for most of his football career and had been a starter for the Colts after he was the team's number one draft choice in 2000.
--Rookie S Antoine Bethea has recorded two interceptions in the last two playoff games. But his theft of a Steve McNair pass at the goal line Saturday showed why he has become an integral part of the Indianapolis defense this season. Bethea has given the Colts a legitimate free safety-type player who is a playmaker, something the team's defense has been lacking the last several years.
--CB Nick Harper remembers last year's playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers for obvious reasons. Harper's fumble recovery of a Jerome Bettis goal line fumble and subsequent return for a possible go-ahead touchdown was thwarted when he was tackled by Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. In Saturday's AFC divisional win over Baltimore, Harper had an interception, forced a fumble by Ravens TE Todd Heap and was all over the field for the Colts defense.
--For as much credit as PK Adam Vinatieri has been getting for his five field goals in the Colts' 15-6 AFC divisional playoff win over Baltimore, some credit should also go to P Hunter Smith.
Smith is one of, if not the best, placement holders in the NFL. Smith's handiwork was in full view on Vinatieri's 51-yard field goal against the Ravens as he took an awkward snap and smoothly placed the ball down without throwing his kicker off stride.
--KR-PR Terrence Wilkins has been a major surprise for the Colts this season. After spending a year out of the league, Wilkins was invited back for a tryout last spring. He went on to make the team and has become one of the better return men in the league. His presence has given Indianapolis a legitimate threat to return either a kickoff or punt for a touchdown on any return.