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FOXBOROUGH — Football is a team game that’s stuffed with individual statistics, and for the first 59 minutes Sunday, Stephen Gostkowski had never been better.
Four field goals, matching his career high. Two field goals of at least 50 yards for the first time as a Patriot, including a 53-yarder, which equaled his longest ever.
Nobody will remember his first four kicks, though. Gostkowski’s fifth attempt, a 42-yarder that would have won the game, was pulled badly in the closing seconds, costing the Patriots in their home opener.
The 20-18 loss to the Cardinals can be attributed to a number of factors — Aaron Hernandez’s early ankle injury, the offense’s inability to reach the end zone until it was too late — but Gostkowski’s failure certainly looms largest.
“Had a chance to win, it came down to me, and I didn’t pull through,” Gostkowski said. “It stinks, I feel bad for the fans and my teammates. You know, I can’t take it back now. I went out there and felt good about the kick, just didn’t execute.
“I’ll feel bad about this for a couple days. I’m sure I’ll get ripped for it from the fans and it’s well deserved. No one feels worse about missing the kick than I do, and you just have to move on and get over it. It’s the good ones that get over bad games, and if I let this affect me negatively then I’m not doing my job.”
When Zoltan Mesko caught the snap and placed the ball down at the 32-yard-line with six seconds left, Gostkowski owned an 85 percent success rate on field goals over his first six-plus seasons with the Patriots. Hard to believe, perhaps, but it was the first time in his career he ever had an opportunity to win a game with a last-second field goal in regulation.
For Patriots fans curious to find out how Gostkowski would react in such a pressure situation, they finally have an answer.
“I felt good going out there. It wasn’t the smoothest hit, I looked up and I saw it was left,” Gostkowski said. “Sometimes the ball doesn’t fly your way. There’s probably not another game where I’d be more confident going out for a kick like that. It humbles you really quick.”
As far as points go, Gostkowski had been the entire Patriots offense for much of the game, kicking first-half field goals of 46 and 34 yards, adding a 51-yarder in the third quarter, then knocking in the 53-yarder with 6:45 left, cutting Arizona’s lead to 20-12 and making it a one-possession game.
A touchdown with 2:06 left put the Patriots in position to tie with a successful 2-point conversion, but a pass for Rob Gronkowski was incomplete. A fumble on the ensuing Cardinals possession gave the Patriots one last chance, the team choosing to burn 39 seconds (and not trying to gain any more yards) after moving the ball to the middle of the field, setting up Gostkowski for the winning try.
Big-kick jitters? At least one player was willing to publicly speculate.
“I think he was a little scared of us, honestly,” said Cardinals standout Patrick Peterson. “That is why he [pulled] it left.”
The miss capped a disappointing day for the Patriots’ special teams. In the days leading up to the game they acknowledged Arizona’s ability to block kicks, yet still allowed the Cardinals to get their hands on a pivotal third-quarter punt by Mesko. Quentin Groves blew past Nate Ebner and deflected the punt, the ball squirting out of bounds at the Patriots’ 2-yard-line. Three plays later the Cardinals were in the end zone, taking the lead for good.
“There’s things that I can control, which is the punting part, and there’s things that I can’t,” said Mesko, who also disclosed that an earlier punt against heavy pressure glanced off the shoulder pads of a Cardinals player. “I felt like the operation, the rhythm went all right, maybe the protection I believe on the left side broke down.”
No protection issues on the last-second field-goal attempt. Gostkowski came in confident and was definitely in rhythm, until it mattered most.
Football is also a game where players are best served having short, selective memories. Especially early in the season.
“I’m not scared to fail. It stinks when you do,” Gostkowski said. “I wouldn’t go out there every day if I was scared to screw up.
“It’s just really unfortunate that I couldn’t come through at the end. I had a chance to make a big impact on the game.”