Down 25 points in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots needed a series of best-case scenarios to climb back into the game. Even after they cut the Falcons' lead to 16, they still needed two touchdowns and two two-point conversions just to tie.
All the while, they had to hold Atlanta scoreless.
One of the key players in that effort wasn't a defensive end, linebacker or cornerback. He doesn't catch, deflect or even deflate footballs. All he does is kick them.
How about some love for Stephen Gostkowski? Yes, he missed an extra point, but he redeemed himself late in the fourth quarter.
We'll remember Tom Brady's 62 passes, Julian Edelman's double-clutch catch and James White's game-winning touchdown run.
Here's what we'll forget: Gostkowski's mortar kicks (high-arcing kickoffs that sacrifice distance for hang time).
Mortar kicks, if you remember, were a factor in the Bucs' decision to draft Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round last spring.
With the Patriots down 28-20 and less than six minutes left in regulation, Gostkowski dropped two of them inside Atlanta's 5-yard line.
The first succeeded not only because of execution but also because of circumstance. Concerned about an onside kick, the Falcons positioned 10 players near the line of scrimmage. Return man Justin Hardy, anticipating a pop-up, had to backpedal to the Atlanta 3 to retrieve the ball. Without a running start and blockers in front, he gained little ground and ran out of bounds at the 10. Eric Weems wasn't much more effective on the second kick, reaching the 11 before New England pounced on him, too.
That's how you neutralize big-play offenses. Don't spot them yards. Pin them as deep as possible on their side of the field. Make them drive farther.
Outcomes of drives, 2011-2015
|Drive start at own 10||Drive start at own 25|
|Punt||47.6 percent||45.1 percent|
|Interception or fumble||15.0 percent||13.3 percent|
|Touchdown or field goal||25.8 percent||31.8 percent|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Gostkowski proved Sunday that kickers can influence games beyond field goals and extra points, as the Bucs argued when they selected Aguayo.
"(Aguayo's) also a weapon as a kickoff guy, too," general manager Jason Licht said. "He can either put it out of the end zone or he can hang it high and drop it on the 5 or the 2."
Once the season arrived, however, Tampa Bay chose to conceal that weapon, attempting only eight mortar kicks (which we're defining as kickoffs that opponents took possession of between the goal line and the 10). Roughly 70 percent of Aguayo's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, the NFL's sixth-highest rate.
Kickoff touchback percentage (excluding onside kicks), 2016
(minimum 60 kickoffs)
|1. Jason Myers, Jaguars||60||83.3|
|2. Josh Lambo, Chargers||67||75.3|
|3. Graham Gano, Panthers||63||74.1|
|4. Ryan Succop, Titans||58||73.4|
|5. Dustin Hopkins, Washington||65||72.2|
|6. Roberto Aguayo, Bucs||52||68.4|
|16. Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots||52||55.9|
The Bucs' mortar kicks failed to produce favorable outcomes, which isn't necessarily Aguayo's fault. He dropped all but one kick at or inside the 2, and yet opponents began, on average, at the 22. They went on to score four times (one touchdown and three field goals) and didn't turn the ball over once.
Contrast the Bucs with the Patriots, who attempted four times as many mortar kicks. Opponents went on to score six times (three touchdowns and three field goals) and turned the ball over five times.
Opponent drive outcomes after a receiving the ball inside the 10, 2016
|Punt||3 (37.5%)||14 (45.2%)|
|Touchdown||1 (12.5%)||3 (9.7%)|
|Field goal||3 (37.5%)||3 (9.7%)|
|Missed field goal||-||3 (9.7%)|
|End of half||1 (12.5%)||1 (3.2%)|
During the regular season, such plays might be of little consequence. Come playoffs, though, they can make all the difference.
In the fourth quarter Sunday, we saw what truly separates the Patriots from their peers. It's more than Tom Brady. It's more than luck. It's a mentality.
They relentlessly search for any possible advantage, and once they identify it, they test it over and over and over. While the rest of us see kickoffs as an opportunity for a bathroom break, New England sees them as a chance to change games.
Some might call the Patriots' comeback a miracle. It wasn't. It was the culmination of months of preparation.
Of course Gostkowski perfectly executed two mortar kicks in six minutes. He had been kicking them all season long.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.