Monday, February 03, 2014

In year of the kicker, best 2 - Steven Hauschka and Matt Prater - meet in Super Bowl XLVIII

February 2, 2014

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J - If the Super Bowl comes down a last-second field goal, might as well head for the fridge. If your team has the ball, the question is not whether it's going to be good — it will — but whether to pop the cork on that bottle of champagne you've been saving for some big occasion.

NFL kickers had their best season ever by several important measures, and the two on call Sunday — Seattle's Steven Hauschka and Denver's Matt Prater — finished ranked Nos. 1 and 2.

Including the playoffs, Hauschka was 39 of 41 (95.1 percent; the NFL average was 86.5), including a perfect 3 of 3 from 50 yards and beyond (NFL average: 66.9). Hauschka's longest was 53.

Prater was 30 of 32 (93.8 percent), and 7 of 8 from 50-plus. But that last number might be even more impressive, considering his range. Just this past December, in frigid, icy conditions at home against Tennessee, Prater set the league record for the longest field goal ever: 64 yards.

With these two, any ball snapped from an opponent's 35-yard-line on in is a strong candidate to squeeze through the uprights. The longest made field goal at MetLife this season was 57 yards, by Green Bay's Mason Crosby, but it came on an unseasonably warm 59-degree day in November.

Still, as desperate measures go, even a kick from the midfield stripe — and perhaps even two steps beyond, roughly 70 yards — is not out of the question.

"I know Prater can hit it," Hauschka said. "I've seen him it several times."

"Where?" a reporter asked.

"In Denver," Hauschka replied. "Yeah, he could hit 75 for sure."

"Without wind?" came the follow-up.

"Yeah," Hauschka said. "For real."

Exactly how Hauschka wound up witnessing those feats speaks volumes about the kicking fraternity and the lack of job security. It's why the profession's unofficial motto is: "Everybody wants your job during the week. But nobody wants it on Sunday."

Like Prater and nearly every other NFL kicker, Hauschka went undrafted out of college and Denver was the fifth of the six teams he's kicked for — a stint in Detroit lasted all of 18 days — in his six seasons in the league. He wound up in an emergency relief role with the Broncos in December, 2010, when Prater pulled a groin muscle. The two became fast friends, even as they battled for the starter's job at training camp the following fall.

"We got along great," recalled Prater, who kicked for three other clubs before gaining a foothold in Denver in 2007. "He was a real professional. We were competing for a job and then we'd go get dinner. Just a fun guy to be around."

Not coincidentally, the two ran into each other again on Wednesday at MetLife Stadium. Hauschka had just finished practice as Prater was coming in. Their respective scouting reports revealed a lot about how they view their craft.

"I'm not one to try and overanalyze," Prater said. "It was nice. The conditions were pretty good and the ball was flying pretty good."

Asked whether he was following the weather forecasts for Sunday, Prater leaned back in his chair.

"Everyone else has been keeping me updated," he laughed.

Hauschka, on the other hand, described his brief kicking session this way: "Pretty typical winds, kind of go from Denver's sideline to our sideline. Wind usually comes from the west, then bounces off that side of the stadium and then blows toward our sideline. ... I've looked at it on film, I've kicked there a couple times, and it's always been doing that."

Small wonder that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll described Hauschka's , "He's very intellectual, very astute about his skills, in the game and the situation. We totally trust him."

When someone asked Denver's Brandon Marshall, a reserve linebacker who plays on special teams, to describe Prater's approach, he just laughed.

"Power," he said. "The dude is not even 6 feet (actually, 5-foot-10), so I don't know where it comes from. ... I got big feet (size 14) and I tried kicking in eighth grade and the ball didn't go anywhere. So I've got all the respect in the world for Matt."

If that last-gasp kick scenario comes into play, both Hauschka and Prater will be prepared for it, but in different ways.

"I first thought about it back in April," Hauschka said. "We sat down as a team back then and each player wrote down his goals. One of my goals was to kick the game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl."

When asked whether he dreamed about that same kick, Prater was nonchalant.

"No," he laughed. "To be honest, when I was younger, I didn't even want to be a kicker. I wanted to play baseball.

"I try not to think about the situations," Prater added a moment later. "I try to play them as they present themselves."

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