Audio report above by WBUR’s Doug Tribou; text report below from The Associated Press.
Stephen Gostkowski sings on the sideline when he prepares to kick. Then he tries a field goal that could win a big game for the New England Patriots.
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” might be appropriate Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts with a spot in the AFC championship game at stake.
Steady rain is expected during the divisional-round game, but Gostkowski says it’s his job to deal with all kinds of weather. Besides, the NFL scoring leader for the second straight season has a routine that helps him focus.
During the week “I’ll watch a five-minute (video) cut-up of some big kicks that I’ve made to a song that I like,” he said. “Then, when I’m on the sideline, I’ll sing that song and then, in my head, I see the ball going through the uprights.”
What’s that tune? Country, rock, hip-hop?
“It’s a secret,” Gostkowski said, smiling.
On game day he also listens to mellow music to relax before taking the field where 300-pound linemen charge each other and cornerbacks collide with receivers.
“I always just try to visualize myself doing well and not getting overexcited or too hyped up in the moment,” Gostkowski said. “Most of those guys are banging heads. I’m trying to like listen to Enya before the game to calm myself down.
“The worst thing you can do in situations where, for me personally, where the situation gets bigger, is get too excited. You have to try to slow your heart rate down, turn that nervousness and tightness into focus.”
It’s worked for him.
In eight seasons since the Patriots drafted him in the fourth round out of Memphis in 2006, Gostkowski has made 85.6 percent of his regular-season field goal attempts, fifth best in NFL history. This season, his 92.7 percentage (38 of 41) was second best in Patriots history.
The best? The 93.9 percent (31 of 33) in 2004 of Adam Vinatieri, the kicker Gostkowski replaced.
The 18-year veteran returns to Gillette Stadium with the Colts after a regular-season in which he made 87.5 percent (35 of 40) of his attempts.
And the kicker whose field goal on the last play gave the Patriots a 20-17 win over the St. Louis Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl expects the same greeting he heard in past visits with the Colts.
“They’re fanatical fans, like we have,” Vinatieri said. “I’m sure they’ll be loud and probably in a negative way to me and the rest of the team, but that’s what it’s supposed to be.”
In the only other playoff duel between the two kickers, the Colts trailed 21-3 in the final minute of the first half but won the AFC championship game 38-34 on their way to a 2007 Super Bowl victory. On consecutive fourth-quarter series, Gostkowski, then Vinatieri then Gostkowski again made field goals that left the Patriots ahead 34-31. Then Joseph Addai ran 3 yards for the winning touchdown with 1:00 left.
“There’s a lot of fun things about this sport,” said Vinatieri, who also won three Super Bowls with New England, “but trying to hoist that trophy at the end is what we all play for.”
He has been a clutch kicker with 24 winning field goals in the last minute of a regular-season or playoff game.
“He’s a special guy,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He was here in ’96, the year I came in (as an assistant coach) and was very consistent, dependable, tough-minded, good technique player. It doesn’t look like it’s changed.”
Gostkowski has had far fewer clutch opportunities in 10 fewer seasons, connecting on six winning field goals in the final four minutes with three coming this season.
He admires Vinatieri’s long-term success, but can he envision sticking around that long himself?
“I don’t know, man,” Gostkowski said. “I’m just trying to make it to the next game.”
For now, it’s all about Saturday night.
Both teams have been in plenty of close games this season. The Patriots (12-4) are 8-4 when the margin was seven points or fewer. The Colts (12-5) were 6-1 in games decided by six or fewer. The latest came last Saturday in a 45-44 wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs, who led by 28 early in the third quarter.
And two of last weekend’s four playoff games were won with field goals on the last play.
So the spotlight could be on Gostkowski or Vinatieri late in a game that will keep alive one team’s Super Bowl hopes.
“If I feel nervous and tight and anxious before the game, I feel like if I can turn that into focus then I’ll have a good day,” Gostkowski said. “It’s the days I show up and I just feel like it’s any other day are the days I get most worried. If I can turn that anxiousness into focus then I feel pretty confident.”