Playing for the field goal used to be a roll of the dice at the end of NFL games. Now, it's almost a sure thing.
The numbers say kickers are more dependable than ever, both overall and when the outcome is on the line. Consider this: Only one field goal attempt for the lead in the final two minutes of a game or in overtime this season has been missed, by Houston's Randy Bullock from 46 yards on Sept. 15. The Texans still won the game, in overtime against Tennessee.
On Sunday, four games were won with late field goals: Nick Folk of the Jets from 42 yards to beat the Patriots in overtime; Cincinnati's Mike Nugent from 54 to beat Detroit; Buffalo's Dan Carpenter from 31 to beat his former team, Miami; and Pittsburgh's Shaun Suisham from 42 to knock off archrival Baltimore.
Everyone loves the last-ditch touchdowns such as Tom Brady's connection with Kenbrell Thompkins against New Orleans the previous week. But more and more, coaches are looking to their soccer-style booters to provide the decisive points.
And the kickers are coming through.
''I like the situation,''' said Folk, whose work proves it - he has clinched three of New York's four victories with late field goals. ''I don't find it intimidating, and I just face the pressure.''
Folk and the Jets are at Cincinnati next Sunday, where the Bengals have their own strong-willed kicker in former Jet Mike Nugent. Against the Bills on Oct. 13, he nailed a 43-yarder for a 27-24 win. Then he beat the Lions by the same score with the 54-yarder, the longest winning kick in the fourth quarter for a team that didn't relinquish the lead through seven weeks, according to STATS.
Earlier in the final period, Nugent had missed from 47 yards. But he knew coach Marvin Lewis would have faith in him if the situation arose later on.
''You kind of think about it both ways. I sit there thinking if I'd made that earlier kick, how different would the game be at the end of the day,'' Nugent said. ''You think about that after the game but not so much during, because if you make a big deal of that during the game, it's going to drive you crazy and maybe not get the better result.''
Carpenter's might be the most inspiring performance. After five years with the Dolphins, he was released and wound up in Buffalo. On Sunday, he connected for a little payback.
Coach Doug Marrone was certain he could rely on Carpenter, and not just because of the kicker's familiarity with the stadium. He knew Carpenter wouldn't tighten up in a pressurized situation.
''I think for maybe with a young kicker that could be (an issue) but not with a guy like him,'' Marrone said. ''He's fine. Nothing's really going to rattle him too much. ... I think Dan is well-respected. He had a great career here. I don't think anyone needs any extra motivation in this league to come back and kind of say, 'Hey, I told you so.' Dan's a professional.''
Kickers have become such a reliable commodity that their 86.7 percent success rate thus far would be an all-time high. Keep in mind, though, that the percentage was higher at this time a year ago, 87.7, and tailed off to 83.9 as the weather got worse and footballs became harder to kick for distance or accuracy.
So far in 2013, four kickers are perfect on field goals: Folk, Suisham, St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein and Denver's Matt Prater. Folk has the most, 16.
That's not a significantly higher number than in other seasons, and only two kickers have gone through an entire schedule without a miss, Minnesota's Gary Anderson in 1998 (35 for 35), and Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt in 2003 (37 for 37). Neither got to the Super Bowl in those years.
With coaches so confident in their kickers, they are willing to ''settle'' for the 40-plus field goals late in games, especially when their offense can run down the clock and not allow the opponent any time to respond.
''We have 'Folk Hero' and we thought he could pop one on them,'' Jets coach Rex Ryan said. ''At the end of the day, we believe in our guy. He's a great kicker.''
And what instructions do these kickers need?
''I just thought, 'Kick it through those yellow things,''' Carpenter said.
Seems nearly ever kicker is doing it to win games this year.
AP Sports Writers Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York, Joe Kay in Cincinnati and John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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