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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2004

Kickers's reality - win some, miss some

Staff writer

HOUSTON - Although many dream about playing professional American football, those fantasies usually involve throwing or catching for the game-winning score, or sacking the quarterback, possibly knocking the ball loose in the process to force a turnover.

Guts, glory, slow-motion replays on "Play of the Day," big-money contracts, fans around the world proudly wearing your jersey number.

But place kicker? Who dreams about that specialized, low-paying, unforgiving, often thankless, job?*

In so many situations, the game comes down to one swing of a very practiced leg. Sink or save the team. Make it and be a hero. Miss it and . . . well, just don't miss.

That's how it stood Sunday in Super Bowl XXXVIII at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

Adam Vinatieri once again kicked a decisive field goal - a 41-yarder with 0:04 left in the game - to lead the New England Patriots to a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers. With the victory, the Patriots won their second world championship in three years and extended their winning streak to 15 games.

Vinatieri kicked the game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, too.

"There's nothing better than this feeling right now and with this team winning. It's unbelievable," Vinatieri said after the game. "(The winning kick) just came down to rhythm." Vinatieri missed two kicks in the first quarter, going wide right on the first one and getting blocked one the second. But the winning field goal offset those failures.

But the life doesn't always go like this. Look at John Kasay of the Panthers.

After the Panthers tied the game on Ricky Proehl's 12-yard touchdown reception and his own extra-point kick with 1:08 remaining, Kasay made a heart-breaking mistake on the next kickoff as the ball sailed left and went out of bounds untouched.

Under NFL rules, this earns a penalty and the Patriots took possession on their own 40-yard line.

"I caught it just a little late," said Kasay, who kicked a 50-yard field goal earlier in the game. "I was trying to make a really good kick. I got a little high and a little outside on the ball."

The Patriots took advantage of their field position and the time remaining. The game's MVP Tom Brady threw four consecutive passes to advance to Carolina's 23-yard line before Vinatieri's winning kick.

Kasay had four winning field goals this season and helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl. But he could be remembered for that missed kickoff by the Panthers fans for years to come. That's the reality and toughness the NFL kickers have to face.

**Despite earning maybe half or less than their quarterbacks, kickers occupy the top 20 spots of the NFL's Leading Lifetime Scorers list. The Patriots' Vinatieri has amassed 917 total points while Kasay for the Panthers' has 759 - both well short of the 20th place total of 1,230.

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