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Here's the kicker: Can the Patriots trust theirs?

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  January 3, 2013 08:50 AM

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After a season that exhibited few missed opportunities for the 12-4 playoff-bound Patriots, itís hard to nitpick, but the fact that New England may find itself having to travel to Denver for the AFC Championship game in two weeks truly comes down to one, split-second gaffe.

gostkowski.jpg

Yup, thatís Stephen Gostkowski watching his potential game-winning field goal against the Cardinals sail left in the 2012 home opener at Gillette Stadium as Arizona escaped with a 20-18 win, the most inexcusable defeat of the Patriots' season. Baltimore is in the playoffs. Seattle is in the playoffs. San Francisco is in the playoffs.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, finished 5-11 and are in the hunt for a new head coach after sacking Ken Whisenhunt on Monday.

Bad loss. Awful loss.

It sort of went under the radar a bit that Gostkowski finished the 2012 season only two points behind Gino Cappelletti's franchise record of 155. In the minds of most, that would be considered a successful season for a kicker. But even putting the Arizona game aside for a moment, it was for sure an uneven year for the seven-year veteran. While few would point to the kicker as a major factor in determining just how far this team can go in the playoffs, for a franchise that polishes a pair of Lombardis in no small part thanks to the feats of Adam Vinatieri, the question as to how much you can trust the incumbent has to be of some concern, no?

Maybe there wonít be another fourth and 13 Super Bowl XLII moment in order to debate the faith that Bill Belichick has in Gostkowski, but for all the numbers he amassed in 2012, it was his lowest field goal success percentage (82.9) in a complete season since his rookie year (76.9 - Gostkowski missed eight games in 2010 due to injury and was just 10 of 13 that season). The 35 attempts were the most heís had since the 2008 season, but the six he missed tied a career-high. And that playoff clutch kick has yet to transpire, as Pats fans hold their collective breath in the simple hopes that Gostkowski doesnít Cundiff the kick at the most critical of times.

Gostkowski led the league in scoring, but his 29 field goals only had him tied for eighth among kickers. His 66 extra points were eight more than New Orleansí Garret Hartley for the crown. Meanwhile, his New England teammates had a record 444 first downs this season. To put that into some perspective, the well-oiled, 18-1 team had 393 in 2007. It begs the question, is Gostkowski simply a beneficiary of his offense, or is he really, truly someone that can you count on in a clutch situation? All kickers are to great degrees, of course, but you knew you could count on that last guy. Gostkowski?

After his brutal late-season stretch when he missed three of seven attempts, the kicker seemed to have gotten back on some sort of track, making his last five against San Francisco and Jacksonville. Gostkowski didnít have an attempt in the season finale against the Dolphins, due more to the swirling wind that invaded Gillette Stadium than anything else.

But his first miss of the season is the reason why the Patriots are not the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Letís hope thatís as negative a thing as you can say about him in a few weeks from now.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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