FOXBOROUGH — The sixth and final punt from Ryan Allen on Sunday night (Monday morning, to be accurate) traveled only 42 yards, not far considering the Patriots rookie had a strong wind at his back.
But height, not distance, was Allen’s focus. With barely three minutes left in overtime of a tie game and the Patriots punting the ball back to the Broncos, the assumption at Gillette Stadium was that the home team’s only chance to win was for the visitors to make a colossal mistake.
Allen presented them with an opportunity to do just that, booming a towering kick that hung in the air for 5.1 seconds. Broncos returner Wes Welker chose not to run up and catch the high knuckler, and instead he waved and warned his teammates to steer clear of the falling ball.
The ball had other ideas. It landed, bounced, and made contact with Denver’s Tony Carter, becoming a live ball for whoever wanted to pounce on the pill. New England special teamer Nate Ebner got there first, improbably giving the Patriots new life at the Broncos’ 13-yard line. A 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski three plays later ended the game.
Ebner’s recovery and Gostkowski’s kick were the two plays that received most of the television highlights. Lost in significance, though, might have been Allen’s actual kick.
“It wasn’t overlooked,” said coach Bill Belichick. “It’s the most important part of the play. That is the play.
“That was a big emphasis point, for Ryan especially in those conditions with the wind, to get the ball up there to make it hard to handle. That’s a tough ball when it’s high. People are around you, there’s wind, it’s knuckling a little bit, it’s cold. You try to pressure the specialist.”
With the wind blowing more than 20 miles per hour, all of the specialists felt pressured. Long snapper Danny Aiken, sending the ball into the wind on the overtime punt, needed to place it in Allen’s catch radius. Earlier in the game, on a second-quarter punt when Allen was kicking into the wind, Aiken’s downwind snap caught a gust and veered 3 feet off-line, forcing Allen to lunge low and left. Caught, but too close for comfort.
“It’s unpredictable, but you just go out there and do your fundamentals,” Aiken said.
His overtime snap was perfect. Then it was up to Allen.
Belichick said a punter can’t be really good unless he has good hands, no matter how strong the leg. Allen is in agreement.
“If you look at the logistics of what punters do, you’ve got to work your hands pretty fast,” Allen said. “You want to secure the catch every time, and I like to use the term ‘having soft hands.’
“Being able to catch the ball, and being able to mold the ball how you want it, getting it where you want it, because everybody is different, so everyone will hold it differently, extend it differently.
“It’s very important to catch that ball and to have it give a little bit, to where you can be gentle with it, because the gentler you are, the stiller your drop is going to be, and that’s the important part.”
Allen gathered Aiken’s snap cleanly, and instead of letting instinct take over, he followed his technical checklist as he prepared to drop and kick. Laces up. Don’t overstride. Ball positioned correctly, not too close to the body. Make solid contact.
In this case, there was another item on the list. Because the Patriots were defending the north end zone, Allen had that strong wind helping, so he focused on kicking as high as he could.
“My philosophy in that certain situation, our goal is to make clean contact with the ball, but get the ball up, and give our coverage unit enough time to get down there,” Allen said. “With the wind like that, there’s less margin for error. I was able to swing up, that’s what we practiced during the week, and we executed very well.”
Allen knew as soon as his left foot hit the ball he had made the kind of contact he was seeking. What he didn’t know right away is that his punt bounced off Carter and into Ebner’s gloved hands. The crowd told him that.
“I was running downfield and then I heard everybody, I heard the crowd, and I was like, ‘No way, that’s crazy,’ ” Allen said. “You never know when you’re going to get one last opportunity.”
That opportunity came after Allen’s punt flew just 42 yards, lowering his average for the game to 44.5. But because of practice — both Allen and Aiken noted how windy it gets behind Gillette Stadium, on the team’s practice fields — and adapting to the conditions, two kicks capped an unlikely comeback.