The eight teams still in the hunt for the Super Bowl, as disparate as their seasons may have been, have at least one thing in common. Each has a field-goal kicker who has been pivotal in getting his team into the playoffs or keeping them there.
Whether it's the Ravens' Matt Stover making a final-minute 52-yarder in an early-season victory over the Cleveland Browns or the Philadelphia Eagles' David Akers booting a game-winning 38-yarder in a wild-card playoff game against the New York Giants with no time left Sunday, kickers are often the difference in a team's fortunes.
In Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game at M&T; Bank Stadium, Stover or the Indianapolis Colts' Adam Vinatieri, considered by many the best clutch kicker of all time, may decide his team's fate.
So considering the weight of a well-timed field goal, how does it happen that so many teams find themselves in the frustrating business of constantly being in pursuit of a reliable leg, or in NFL front office-speak: "chasing kickers"?
Stover, who has spent 17 seasons with the same franchise and rewarded the Ravens with 28 successful field goals in 30 attempts (an NFL-leading 93.3 percent) this season, said there are several reasons why his position may occasionally be under-valued.
"First, there's the number of plays that we play," he said. "It's relatively few compared to your starting 22 players. ... And then there's a feeling, in some instances, that kickers are pretty replaceable. A good example is Robbie Gould, who was both here and in New England [in 2005]. ... He was waived, and this year he's going to the Pro Bowl for the Chicago Bears. So there's this attitude that there is always another Robbie Gould out there and a kicker is easier to find than, say, a Steve McNair or a Tom Brady."
But there are traps in that type of thinking. Although kickers participate in just a handful of plays, Stover said, "the importance of those plays, the impact that a field goal has, is so great that it's ridiculous."
And for every Gould, there are many more occasions when the search for a competent leg can take several seasons. When veteran John Carney left San Diego after a contract dispute in 2001, the Chargers went through kickers such as Steve Christie and ex-Raven Wade Richey before drafting Nate Kaeding, who also struggled before hitting his stride this season.
Rick Gonsalves, who runs a kicking academy in Massachusetts and has provided research material to NFL kickers for contract negotiations, has calculated that since 1970, field goals figured in the outcome of about 30 percent of all games. And if a game goes into overtime, history shows that a field goal will decide it nearly 70 percent of the time.
Former Chargers star kicker Rolf Benirschke, who ended an epic playoff game against the Miami Dolphins in January 1982 with a 29-yarder in overtime, says that the coaching mind-set regarding kickers has changed over the years but that the issue remains problematic.
"We perform a couple of straight-forward physical movements, whereas other players have to get into a playbook, they have to be strong, they have to be fast," Benirschke said. "And I think a coach figures it's harder to find someone ... who has all those physical qualities rather than someone who performs the comparatively routine acts that we're asked to do."
However, with parity narrowing the difference among NFL teams, a single play frequently decides a whole season. And that onus falls not just on the kicker, Benirschke pointed out, but the entire battery of snapper, holder and kicker.
A shaky snap and hold on an extra-point attempt cost the Cincinnati Bengals a playoff berth, and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo's failure to place the ball for what could have been a game-winning field goal last Saturday sent the Cowboys home.
To help Akers, who had slipped some this season, the Eagles recently signed former holder Koy Detmer, who was on the field for the game-winner against the Giants.
Meanwhile, the Patriots allowed Vinatieri, the hero of divisional, conference championship and Super Bowl games, to depart New England as a free agent during the offseason. He was signed by the Colts after they had lost patience with Mike Vanderjagt, who proved unreliable in big games.
That the Cowboys exited the playoffs on a field-goal attempt was a cruel twist for Dallas coach Bill Parcells, whose team just missed the playoffs in 2005 as three kickers went 20-for-28. After the expensive offseason free-agent signing of Vanderjagt went sour, the midseason acquisition of Martin Gramatica seemed to save the Cowboys from field-goal misery - until Romo's flub.
Benirschke says that not every coach has the makeup to handle kickers, whose own psyches can be fragile. Kicking consultant Doug Blevins, an assistant to Jimmy Johnson when he was the Dolphins' coach, said that great kickers such as Vinatieri and Stover make it look so easy that head coaches sometimes don't appreciate the difficulty of the task.
However, Ravens special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. says that in the modern NFL, no coach is likely to overlook that key component of the game.
"I don't see it," Gansz said. "Look at Vanderjagt; he was signed for a lot of money as a free agent. And look how the Colts went after Vinatieri because they believed he could get them to the next level ... When you're in meetings, when you're behind closed doors, I'll tell you that [special teams play] is very much emphasized."