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Goats Pave Way to Championship Weekend

The three biggest games of the NFL season have still yet to kick off, but the theme of the 2010 playoffs has already been etched. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Year of the Goat Kicker.

How we got here is tough to tell, but the explanation for what’s gone down might actually be pretty simple.

Kickers have always been the bastard child of the football family. The characteristics that define ninety-nine percent of NFL players — namely big muscles and bigger bravado — are mostly absent in the kicker (exception: Sebastian Janikowski).

The kicker is not required to throw or catch the football. He doesn’t have to memorize hundreds of playbook pages, doesn’t need to know blocking assignments or hot reads. On occasion he’s expected to make a hit, but that’s as the last line of defense when the kick coverage has completely broken down and he’s being counted on to take a good angle and hopefully run the returner out of bounds. Rarely chest-bumping stuff.

The kicker’s job is straightforward — between the uprights and over the crossbar — but his cause is often misunderstood. On a 53-man roster he’s the furthest thing from a “football player”. But at least a handful of times a year and frequently in the playoffs he trots onto the field — his compatriots physically battered and exhausted on the sidelines — representing the tenuous difference between a “W” and an “L”. If the kick is good, he’s the hero, probably gets the game ball. If it’s wide or short, he’s the goat, forced to walk the ultimate walk of shame.

No matter what, he’s estranged to those around him, the recipient of visceral and extreme emotional reactions with no middle ground. And that’s just it. In the ultimate team and man’s game, the kicker struggles not against the opposition, but rather against himself and on occasion, the elements. He can’t relate to anyone else on the field (minus his counterpart on the other team) and they can’t relate to him.

When he steps onto the field with the game on the line, you can be sure all that is swirling around in his head. The physical act of booting the ball is a unique skill he’s honed to near-perfection over years of practice. That is, after all, why he has the job. But the mental burden he carries out there with him, that is what he must conquer in the precious few seconds he has before the ball in snapped and the hold is down.

If he fails, then a kick so expected, so easy he probably literally does it in his sleep, suddenly sails wide.

How else can you explain the league’s most accurate kicker during the regular season (Neil Rackers – 94.1 percent) pulling a shankapotamus on a 34-yard game-winning chip shot vs. Green Bay? Or the most accurate kicker in NFL history (Nate Kaeding – 89.1 percent) yanking a couple of typical gimmes that combined to be the difference in the game vs. the Jets?

In Kaeding’s case, there are clearly some demons present when it comes to the Jets and the playoffs. In the 2005 postseason, as a rookie with the AFC West champion Chargers, Kaeding missed a 40-yarder in overtime at home vs. New York. The Jets won the game and advanced. Kaeding, evidently, never forgot about that kick and it came back to haunt him.

Rackers’ ill-fated boot vs. the Packers was essentially missed before he connected with the pigskin, his form was so visibly altered.

With such a widespread trend of missed field goals over the last three weeks (in addition to Kaeding and Rackers, Shaun Suisham of the Cowboys failed to do his job twice vs. the Vikings), the question becomes: Is there a connection? I say yes, and it goes back to the first game of the playoffs, between the Bengals and Jets.

Cincinnati’s Shayne Graham went wide left and wide right from 35 and 28 at home to begin wild-card weekend, helping the underdog Jets pull out the victory. That he missed one was surprising, but not out of the realm. Shanking both of them was downright shocking. To say the ripple effect that resulted was pure coincidence would be to fail to appreciate the plight of the kicker.

There are still a pair of championship games and a Super Bowl to be contested before the final curtain drops on the ’09 season. The numbers would indicate at least one of those affairs will come down to a kick. Whether it’s Jay Feely (Jets), Matt Stover (Colts), Garrett Hartley (Saints) or Ryan Longwell (Vikings) lining up for the destiny-altering strike, aside from holding the fates of their franchises in their right foot, you can count on them sharing one common bond: temporary amnesia.

Onto the championship previews.

AFC Championship – New York Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis Colts (15-2)

The Jets beat the Chargers because their defense kept them in the game throughout the first half, limiting San Diego’s high-scoring offense to a touchdown and missed field goal attempt. The New York offense punted the ball on each of its six first-half possessions.

That formula would lead to most teams’ demise, but the Jets are not afraid to give the ball to the opposition because of the immense confidence they have in their defense. It all starts at the top with Rex Ryan’s schemes, blitz packages and cockiness.

Ryan loves to bring pressure from all over the place. He’s particularly endeared to the zone blitz (where linebackers or safeties rush the passer while linemen drop into zone coverage), a tactic that ultimately forced Phillip Rivers into many uncomfortable situations that ended with poor throws or turnovers. The difference between Rivers — or any other quarterback for that matter — and Peyton Manning is Manning licks his chops when he senses the pressure because he knows there are one-on-one matchups on the outside he can exploit.

The key to beating Manning is twofold. First, it’s vital to disguise coverages as long as possible so he can’t make line audibles. Second, a delicate balance must be struck between removing him from his comfort zone (the pocket) with some pressure and employing a variety of crafty sub packages. When the Patriots knocked off the Colts in the 2004 and ’05 playoffs, they did so by relying heavily on packages with five, six and sometimes seven defensive backs.

There’s no way the Jets can beat the Colts by blitzing at the same 60 percent rate they have throughout the playoffs. But they’ll still have the luxury of being able to send extra guys because Darrelle Revis and Lito Sheppard have the ability to lock down their receivers one-on-one on the outside. The Jets defense won’t give up the big play, but Manning won’t force the issue. If he has to dink and dunk his way to the AFC title (much like he did to capture Super Bowl XLI vs. the Bears), then that’s what he’ll do.

As effective of a game-manager as Mark Sanchez has been, he’s going to have to deal with the best pair of edge pass rushers in the league in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. A big sack late by one of them will end the J-E-T-S miracle run.

Colts 22
Jets 16

NFC Championship – Minnesota Vikings (13-4) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson may be the faces of the Vikings franchise, but Minnesota’s defensive line has been the team’s X-factor all year.

It was the impetus of a pair of huge regular season wins over the Packers, as Jared Allen, Pat Williams and Ray Edwards accounted for 10.5 of the 14 sacks recorded by the Vikings defense. And after struggling to pressure the quarterback throughout the stretch run, the Minnesota quartet up front once again dominated the line of scrimmage in last week’s 34-3 pummeling of the Cowboys.

If Favre expects to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in over a decade, he’ll have to put a lot of points on the board while avoiding the costly mistakes that thwarted him the last time he played in an NFC Championship game (2008 vs. the Giants). He’ll also need his defense to come up big. If the Vikings D-line can’t generate consistent pressure on Drew Brees, the Saints slinger will carve up a vulnerable Minnesota secondary.

The Saints love getting off to fast starts at home, and in turn the Superdome crowd loves going wild. Unless the Vikings can throw the first and second blows, they will be on the other end of the marked home field advantage they enjoyed at the Metrodome last Sunday vs. Dallas.  For a team that was a mediocre 4-4 on the road in the regular season and hasn’t won a game away from home in nearly three months, going into the most charged atmosphere in the league is a tall order.

The Saints have never hosted an NFC Championship game, but their building has hosted National Championships and Super Bowls. Now it finally has the opportunity to send its team to the Big One.

Saints 30
Vikings 24

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