FOXBOROUGH — Hard to believe, with 68,752 anxious fans packed tightly around a football field making noise, that a certain sound will provide the biggest clue.
Twice, in fact.
Zoltan Mesko, who punts for the Patriots, also has holding duty for placekicker Stephen Gostkowski. Mesko has an important job, but also has perhaps the best seat in the house. With the Patriots trailing by 3 points and time for just one more play in regulation, the game definitely on the line, Mesko put the ball down a split-second before Gostkowski’s right leg swung through. He knew the outcome before even glancing up.
Same thing in overtime, with Gostkowski lining up for a potential winner. Mesko put the ball down cleanly again, and heard the contact Gostkowski made. No need to look up to confirm; he was sure the kick — both kicks — were good.
“I think at this point you just hear it, and you already know,” Mesko said. “I felt confident going out there.”
Gostkowski’s kicks salvaged a 29-26 overtime win over the Jets at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. The first, from 43 yards, came on the last play of the fourth quarter and tied the game at 26. The second, this time a 48-yarder, provided the Patriots the winning margin, but didn’t end the game. The NFL’s new overtime rules gave the Jets one possession to either kick a field goal — which would have extended overtime — or score a game-clinching touchdown. Instead, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham sacked Mark Sanchez, with Ninkovich forcing a fumble that he recovered.
Sweet redemption for Gostkowski, who had missed a potential winning field goal try against the Cardinals Sept. 16 in a 20-18 loss. He nobly faced the music following that game, accepting blame for his last-second miss and taking responsibility for letting his teammates and coaches down when he had the opportunity to turn defeat into victory.
He chose not to speak to the media after making the two huge kicks Sunday, dressing quickly and leaving the locker room by the time reporters were allowed in. That left Mesko, long snapper Danny Aiken, and some of his teammates to share their feelings about twice coming through with the pressure mounting.
“You just stay focused mentally, physically, and you just execute the same way you do in practice,” said Aiken. “It’s great, he comes out and does his job every day, just like the rest of us. He did an awesome job.’’
Aiken has the initial special teams task, firing the football back at Mesko, who doesn’t have much time to get the ball placed before Gostkowski does his part. It’s a close-knit group, those three spending countless hours of practice time, day after monotonous day, working on a play that might win or lose a game. Their lockers are next to each other, and they rise and fall together, happy for each other when it works, supportive when it doesn’t.
It’s the second overtime winner in Gostkowski’s career, and allowed the Patriots to survive in a game in which they coughed up a 10-point fourth-quarter lead for the second straight week. It cost them in Seattle. Aiken, Mesko, and Gostkowski made sure the result would be different back home against the rival Jets.
“It’s a good feeling, probably the best feeling in the house for the guy next to me, Stephen,” Mesko said. “We didn’t celebrate it too much because we knew we had to keep playing.
“I feel great, I never lost hope [in Gostkowski]. He’s the guy we trust, he’s like a brother to me because we’re together all the time.”
Kickers are a rare breed, isolated at practice with the other specialists, yet counted on by their teammates to perform in big moments. Gostkowski’s miss against Arizona was followed two weeks later by two misses at Buffalo. That’s been it, though. He’s now 16 for 19 on the season, with one big miss and two clutch makes on his tote board. The makes certainly make for a much happier locker room.
“Steve came through big,” coach Bill Belichick said.
Said offensive lineman Donald Thomas: “He’s a good kicker, he knows it. Things happen, no one’s perfect. He made up for it today. He showed up.”