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Duel between ‘loneliest’ players could decide Super Bowl

Duel between ‘loneliest’ players could decide Super Bowl

KICK-OFF: Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater celebrates after he kicked the game tying field goal in regulation against the Chicago Bears in their NFL football game in Denver Dec.11, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Rick Wilking

NEW YORK (Reuters) – If one is the loneliest number, then Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater and his Seattle Seahawks counterpart, Steven Hauschka, can certainly count themselves in singular company as they prepare for the Super Bowl.

With five of the last six Super Bowls having been decided by less than a touchdown, Sunday’s title clash at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey could well come down to a kicking contest between Prater and Hauschka.

The two men perform the loneliest roles in the National Football League. When they succeed and kick field goals between the uprights from 40 yards to win games, their contribution is often no more than a footnote as the story is told.

Conversely, when they succumb to the agony of a miss with the glory of a championship or even a regular-season game on the line, their role is widely analyzed and criticized.

The kicker becomes a major talking point in defeat; in victory he is often barely acknowledged.

Statistics indicate that field goals are being made from increasingly longer distances, and that makes misses all the more striking – especially in the rarefied atmosphere of a Super Bowl.

Though the pressure of making a precision kick with very little time left on the clock is always intense, Prater said he would embrace the chance to earn the winning points for the Broncos on Sunday.

“I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that and we’re 10 points in front,” the 29-year-old told reporters. “But if it does, I’m ready for it. I just have to treat it like any other kick.

“This is what all the practice is for. It’s not something I ever dreamt about as a kid, but if I’m in that situation, I’ll be ready. I expect to make any kick that they send me out for.”

Last month, Prater set a National Football League record with a 64-yard field goal during his team’s 51-28 rout of the Tennessee Titans in mile-high Denver, a feat he says owes everything to game conditions.

“Obviously with the altitude, I’ve made some long kicks in Denver but I’ve made some long ones in Florida as well,” said Prater, before adding that he was unframed by the frigid temperatures forecast for Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

“It depends on a lot of things, and obviously the wind. If you hit the ball well, it’s going to go straight and it’s going to go far. I don’t think it’s going to be too windy (on Sunday), if anything the winds affects it more than the cold.”

Prater comes into Sunday’s game having connected on 25-of-26 field goal attempts in the regular season and set a league touchback record with 81. He has converted five of his six field goal tries in the postseason.

SUPER BOWL PRESSURE

Asked whether he felt any added pressure heading into his first Super Bowl, he replied: “I’m not nervous, I’m excited. I just have to treat it like any other game and make sure I execute everything right.”

Signed by the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent in May 2006 and released just three months later, Prater bounced around between several teams before playing his first two NFL games for the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 and then being cut.

He took over as starting kicker for the Broncos in 2008, replacing Jason Elam who signed with Falcons, and has since played six full seasons in Denver.

Hauschka’s journey to the Super Bowl has also followed a twisting route, the 28-year-old kicker having been with five different teams in the league since he was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings in 2008.

“I’ve dreamed about kicking a game-winning field goal ever since I saw (Patriot kicker Adam) Vinatieri do it in the Snow Bowl,” Hauschka said about Vinatieri’s overtime effort through driving snow for a playoff win over the Raiders on New England’s way to their first Super Bowl title in 2002.

“He was my idol growing up. I had a signed photo picture of him up on my wall. I looked forward to that chance as soon as I started kicking. Never thought I’d be an NFL kicker until seven, eight years ago.”

Hauschka, a former soccer player at college, spent two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and a year with the Broncos, where he became friends with Prater, before he was claimed off waivers by Seattle in September 2011.

“Kicking is kind of like a brotherhood,” Hauschka, who converted 33-of-35 field goal attempts during the 2013 regular season and all six of his tries in the postseason, said of his relationship with Prater.

“We stay in touch. I sent him texts throughout the season and texted him last night.”

Asked how he felt about the chance to hit a game-winning kick in the Super Bowl, Hauschka replied: “It heightens your awareness, but at the same time you have to treat it the same as any kick in practice.”

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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