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Three good reasons why the Patriots win the close ones

Stephen Gostkowski (right), the franchise leader in field goals, is 21 for 21 this year.
Stephen Gostkowski (right), the franchise leader in field goals, is 21 for 21 this year.ELSA/GETTY IMAGES/Getty

What makes the Patriots the Patriots is that they can beat you by any means necessary. They can blow you out, methodically break your will, or swipe a squeaker in steely-eyed fashion.

The Patriot Way was paved with last-second victories like Sunday's 27-26 one over the New York Giants.

It's easy to forget now that the Patriots are piling up points and proving them with every Deflategate finger-wagging win. But the New England dynasty was built on winning the close ones. Since 2001, the Patriots are 38-15 (.717 winning percentage) in games decided by 3 points or fewer, the highest winning percentage in the NFL. No other club has won 70 percent of those games.

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It's not surprising that the Patriots' next opponent, the Bills — a club that last made the postseason in 1999 — has the worst record in close game since '01. (21-36, .368).

The Little Engine That Could has morphed into a European bullet train. But every one of the four Lombardi Trophies taking up residence in Fort Foxborough was won in a close game. Two of them were won on last-second field goals like the 54-yard kick Stephen Gostkowski drilled on Sunday.

The Patriots have had their share of fortuitous footballs happenings over the years, and their opponents do tend to melt under pressure as if they're auditioning for "The Wizard of Oz" remake. But the Patriots winning a higher percentage of the heartburn and heart-palpitation games than any other team isn't a coincidence. It is directly traceable to the Holy Trinity of NFL late-game execution: the coach, the quarterback, and the kicker.

The Patriots have been blessed to have the best people at those positions in the league for most of the last 15 years. Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have a canon of clutch performances that will land them in Canton. Former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri is the most clutch kicker of all time. His successor, Gostkowski, is a three-time Pro Bowler and the Patriots' all-time leading scorer.

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It's the kicker equivalent of having Mickey Mantle following Joe DiMaggio.

The Patriots turned the tables on Giants coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning by putting on a clinic in situational football in the final 2 minutes 14 seconds.

They outmaneuvered Manning and Coughlin with clear-headed clock management by Belichick, composed quarterback play from Brady, and steel-stomached execution by Gostkowski.

Since 2001, the Patriots have had one head coach, one franchise quarterback, and two automatic kickers — not counting season-ending injuries to Brady (knee) in 2008 and Gostkowski (torn quad) in 2010.

This is a league where all three of those positions get changed with the frequency of someone flipping through radio stations. That degree of continuity, stability and ability at three vital positions has buttressed the Patriots' metronomic success.

It also added up to a win on Sunday.

Belichick deserves kudos for his time-management skills on Sunday, seeing beyond the 24-23 lead his team clung to in order to set up the game-winning field goal it would need.

His Hoodiness called his first timeout with 2:14 to go after Manning completed a 30-yard pass to Dwayne Harris to move the ball to the Patriots' 28. He used his second timeout on the next play with 2:10 left, knowing he had in effect a fourth timeout with the two-minute warning.

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Then after the Giants reached the Patriots' 5, and threw two incompletions — including Odell Beckham Jr.'s near touchdown catch — Belichick used his final timeout with 1:50 left after the Patriots stopped the Giants on third and goal.

That left Brady and Co. with 1:47 to get in field goal range, and they needed nearly every second of it.

It was the opposite strategy of the one that Belichick applied against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Both worked perfectly.

The capper to Brady's 49th career fourth-quarter comeback was more functional than football artistry. It was not a drive for his scrapbook or his Facebook page.

The first pass should have been intercepted by Landon Collins, who could have fair-caught it, but didn't catch it at all.

But given a reprieve and down to his last down, Brady delivered on fourth and 10 from the New York 20.

That set up Gostkowski, who struck it straight and true to sink Big Blue and push past Vinatieri for the most field goals in Patriots history (264).

"That's the guy you want out there. You want your best player in that situation — an opportunity to win the game for you — and he did, as he has done so many times," said Belichick.

Some are choking on their Cheerios at the notion that Gostkowski is the Patriots' best player, although Belichick declared Vinatieri the best player on the '01 Patriots.

Maybe, that's the former special teams coach in Belichick. Or maybe, it's a veteran head coach who knows how thin the line is between the joy of victory and the agony of defeat.

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Gostkowski is the Patriots' most reliable part.

He has made a team-record 30 straight field goals. He is a perfect 21 for 21 on field goals this season. He is on pace to break the team record for accuracy he set last season, when he made an NFL-leading 35 field goals in 37 attempts (94.6 percent). He holds the NFL mark for consecutive extra points at 445.

He has done all of this with the pressure of replacing a kicker who has a place in Patriots' lore and probably the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Only a fool doesn't see the value of a premium kicker. Belichick is no fool.

Brady and Belichick are the winningest quarterback-coach combination in the Super Bowl era in both the regular season (169-47 ) and the postseason (21-8).

But they haven’t done it alone. They’ve had a third man in every step of the way.

Best records in close games
A look at every team's record in games decided by 3 points or fewer since 2001.
Team W L T Win Pct
1 New England Patriots 38 15 0 .717
2 Indianapolis Colts 39 18 0 .684
3 Chicago Bears 29 18 0 .617
4 Denver Broncos 31 21 0 .596
5 Atlanta Falcons 34 23 1 .595
6 Seattle Seahawks 31 25 0 .554
7 New York Jets 28 24 0 .538
8 New Orleans Saints 30 26 0 .536
9 Dallas Cowboys 32 28 0 .533
10 Pittsburgh Steelers 32 29 1 .524
11 Cincinnati Bengals 22 20 2 .523
12 Minnesota Vikings 27 25 1 .519
13 Baltimore Ravens 36 34 0 .514
14 Jacksonville Jaguars 26 25 0 .510
15 Philadelphia Eagles 27 27 1 .500
16 San Francisco 49ers 29 30 1 .492
17 Arizona Cardinals 27 28 0 .491
18 St. Louis Rams 24 25 1 .490
19 Tennessee Titans 29 31 0 .483
20 Houston Texans 20 23 0 .465
21 Washington Redskins 33 38 0 .465
22 Carolina Panthers 24 28 1 .462
23 Oakland Raiders 23 27 0 .460
24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 29 35 0 .453
25 Green Bay Packers 21 26 1 .448
26 New York Giants 23 29 0 .442
27 Miami Dolphins 26 35 0 .426
28 Cleveland Browns 25 34 0 .424
29 San Diego Chargers 25 35 0 .417
30 Kansas City Chiefs 21 32 0 .396
31 Detroit Lions 20 32 0 .385
32 Buffalo Bills 21 36 0 .368
SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.