- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Stephen Gostkowski pulled the envelope from his mail slot at Gillette Stadium, opened it, and was surprised at what was inside.
The vibe around the New England Patriots at the time, in January 2008, had been generally positive. The historic team was undefeated and coming off a 31-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round of the playoffs. Preparations were under way to face the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game.
Figuring he was holding a piece of encouraging fan mail, Gostkowski soon found out it was anything but.
"It was from someone who was writing about how crucial missed field goals are in the playoffs, and how unacceptable it was," he recalled. "The letter-writer said that he had confidence in me and the team to bet money, and that now I should donate my playoff check because he had so much faith in the team."
The letter reminded Gostkowski -- who had missed a 35-yard field goal attempt against the Jaguars before later hitting from the same distance -- that some people simply don't have a conscience. And that everything is magnified in the playoffs.
Gostkowski told the story Wednesday when touching on something that has been a hot topic of discussion of late: the erratic performance of kickers in this year's playoffs. After converting 81.2 percent of field goal attempts in the regular season, kickers have been successful just 60.6 percent of the time this postseason.
Nate Kaeding's implosion in the divisional round, which contributed to the San Diego Chargers' upset loss to the New York Jets, reflects the overall struggles of kickers.
Gostkowski said it's difficult for him to assess why there has been such a dramatic drop-off, one he contributed to with a 44-yard miss against the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round. He said it's the first question friends have asked him in recent weeks.
"The hardest thing to do is to understand why you missed," Gostkowski said. "A lot of times for me, a big part of it is rhythm. I guess if you might be nervous or anxious, it might take you out of a rhythm or routine. It's been a long time since I've been nervous before a game, so it's hard for me to pinpoint if that is the reason guys are missing. It's not like the guys missing haven't been there or aren't good."
With Kaeding, it was more of a mental breakdown. He later admitted he wasn't strong enough to recover from his first missed field goal that day.
When it comes to the mental aspect of kicking, Gostkowski has worked hard since joining the Patriots to remain on an even keel. He said that's why he doesn't react wildly to successful field goals -- he's no Martin Gramatica -- or hang his head after a miss.
This approach has produced solid results. In his four years in New England, Gostkowski has never missed two field goals in a game. He earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2008 and has converted 76.9, 87.5, 90.0 and 83.8 percent of his field goals from 2006-09.
That's not to say he hasn't had his struggles, however.
It's easy to forget now, but Gostkowski had field goals blocked in the second and third regular-season games of his career. The blocks were magnified because of the large shoes he was stepping into.
"That was probably the hardest thing to get over, especially as a rookie," he said. "I was hearing all the [Adam] Vinatieri stuff, and that was my first time kicking [in Foxborough], when the grass was starting to get real nasty at Gillette. I was still trying to get used to that."
Gostkowski powered through, although he said he didn't do anything out of the ordinary, such as seeking out a sports psychologist. Over the years his father, Larry, has been a helpful sounding board in tough times.
"The only time I ever felt like a head case, or was really affected by anything, was my senior year of high school and trying to get a college scholarship," Gostkowski said. "My approach is really that the more I think about it, the worse I do, so I just block everything out and concentrate on getting better. One thing I've learned since becoming a Patriot is how to work hard. I didn't realize you could work that hard to kick a ball, but now that I do, you put as much effort and as much attention to detail into this little skill."
Gostkowski added that his approach is to "go out there to make the kick instead of going out there not to miss it." He believes finishing his rookie campaign going 8-of-8 in the playoffs was an important springboard for him.
As for the misses over his career, Gostkowski said "sometimes you just can't explain it." The key is responding accordingly, even when you know the next field goal might not come until the following weekend.
"You have to be able to realize that you're good enough to get over it," he said. "Guys on the team respect you a lot more when you can bounce back. Guys get upset at field goal kickers, I think, when they let it get in their head and let it affect them mentally and it hurts them game to game."
The Patriots have been fortunate in that regard. As this year's playoffs have shown, a shaky kicker can lead to disastrous results.
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