Most of their fans and more than a few guys on the Baltimore Ravens' side of the ball spent the past week arguing over the strength of Joe Flacco's arm. Turns out they should have paid more attention to Billy Cundiff's leg.
Their normally reliable placekicker trotted out toward the south end of Gillette Stadium early Sunday evening with 15 seconds left and a slight breeze in his face, eyeing a 32-yard field goal to force overtime against the Patriots in the AFC Championship. Rather than use his last timeout, coach Jim Harbaugh sent his kicking team out in a rush, a situation they had simulated in practice dozens of times.
This time, though, the result was anything but routine. Koch kept his eyes on the spot for a split second after the kick, then raised them to trace the arc of the ball. It duck-hooked just left of the upright, leaving him standing stock still for a moment in stunned silence.
"The timing was a little off and I just didn't convert. It's that simple," Cundiff said. "It's a 32-yard field goal. Between training camps and regular season games, I probably kicked a thousand of those. No excuse."
Before walking out the door a moment later, he paused.
"If you play long enough, you have games where things didn't go your way. You don't get this kind of adrenaline rush sitting behind a desk," Cundiff said softly, "or this kind of pressure."
Then again, guys who work behind desks rarely have the job security of presidential candidates, flit from one job to another, or have to convince co-workers at every shop that they aren't a breed apart. Kickers do all the time. The Ravens are Cundiff's ninth stop during 10 years in the NFL. Only in Dallas, where he began his career and played four seasons, and Baltimore, where Cundiff has played the last three, did he manage to hang on more than a few months.
Maybe that's why so few teammates get close to kickers, and why even fewer had much to say to him after the game. In the locker room afterward, Harbaugh told Cundiff, "You'll be fine. You've got broad shoulders." Sam Koch, the punter who had the locker next to Cundiff's and was the holder on the field-goal attempt, leaned over at one point and asked if he was OK. But that was about it
Across the nearly silent room, Baltimore's veteran tough guy linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs sat knee-to-knee with their heads lowered, quietly commiserating. That scene may have saddened Cundiff most of all.
"I feel like this is a team when you first arrive, it's a tough group to get into because you have to earn their respect. And you do that by playing well," Cundiff said. "I've given the guys a lot of reasons to believe in me. So, if anything, the real disappointment is me letting my teammates down.
"To know that Ray poured his heart out, and he's had a long career and who knows how many years he's got left," he added, "to let him down is pretty tough."
Almost as painful for Cundiff was walking into the interview room as Flacco was finishing up. The Ravens' fourth-year quarterback was batted around last week after veteran safety Ed Reed questioned his command of the offense in Baltimore's narrow escape from the Texans in the previous round. The remarks left his teammates facing a steady stream of questions about whether Flacco had the goods to lead a championship team.
This time out, he silenced that debate by outplaying Tom Brady, throwing two touchdowns against one interception, and nearly doubling the New England glamour-boy's quarterback rating.
"We put ourselves in position to win it," Flacco said, unaware that Cundiff was off to the side, sipping from a bottle of water. "We just weren't able to pull it off."
Kicking is as much an art as a science, and never more daunting than during the playoffs. During the last regular season, kickers converted 87 percent of tries between 30 and 39 yards, according to research by STATS LLC. In the playoffs, going back to 1990, the rate drops to 81.5 percent.
It's one reason you see their teammates holding hands, kneeling in prayer, or burying their heads in a towel when the kick matters most.
"I definitely feel bad," said Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski. "It just kind of humbles you. That could just as easily have been me. It's a bittersweet moment. My heart definitely goes out to him. That's just not something you wish on anybody."
Not exactly true.
"I had my eyes closed. I wasn't going to watch that one," recalled Patriots guard Matt Light. "That's a little too much stress for this guy. Unbelievable, man. Things happen for a reason."
"My heart was beating fast and hoping for that miss," New England's Aaron Hernandez recalled. "And the miss came."