Gostkowski kicks power Patriots' comeback

HOUSTON -- Ryan Allen was a junior at West Salem (Oregon) High School in 2006 when the New England Patriots drafted Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round as the replacement for arguably the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history, Adam Vinatieri.

So the rookie punter and holder on field goals knows little about what NFL life has been like for Gostkowski, especially in the early years. There were some shaky moments.

“You can see how calm and collected he always is. He’s a veteran player and he carries himself that way,” said Allen, who had the best close-up view of Gostkowski during Sunday’s 34-31 victory over the Houston Texans in which he drilled two clutch 53-yard field goals in the fourth quarter.

“It shows he’s mentally stronger than most. It’s amazing to watch how composed and confident he is, no matter the conditions or if he’s had a rough day.”

On a day in which the Patriots weren’t at their best and had to scrape past a two-win Texans team that has now lost 10 games in a row, this might have been Gostkowski’s finest NFL hour.

A 53-yard field goal to tie it with 7:16 remaining. Money.

A 53-yard field goal to take the lead with 3:12 remaining. Money.

They weren’t end-of-game heroics, but in terms of degree of difficulty, it was about as tough of a fourth-quarter challenge as the affable 29-year-old has faced.

“I take pride in every kick,” Gostkowski said, “but especially kicks in the fourth quarter.”

Gostkowski has five career game-winning field goals -- four in the regular season (2010 and three in 2013) and one in the playoffs (2006 season). They came from 31, 35, 35, 31 and now 53 yards.

Distance-wise, one of them obviously stands out from the rest.

That’s why, of all the storylines that unfolded in Sunday’s closer-than-many-anticipated victory, Gostkowski stood slightly above the rest.

Surely, there will be plenty of discussion about Stevan Ridley as a healthy scratch, his future as the team’s lead running back now at a crossroads because of ball-security issues. The run defense looks like a concern. The slow starts aren’t good. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a beast and his return to form has changed the complexion of the offense.

But from this perspective, this was a day to highlight Gostkowski’s work more than anything else, his powerful right leg needed by the Patriots perhaps more than at any time over his eight-year career.

“It’s crazy the way games can play out,” he said. “It’s nice to get opportunities to kick long kicks in good weather. It’s tough to make kicks of that distance in December in Foxborough, so you wouldn’t be expected to be called out there for a couple of 53- or 55-yard field goals. Just to be able to do it in the fourth quarter, and when the team needed me to tie it and to put us ahead, it definitely makes it feel a little bit more special after the fact.”

It was clear in pregame warmups that the ball was exploding off Gostkowski’s foot. The retractable roof at Reliant Stadium was open but it still had more of an indoor feel in which his distance appeared to approach about 60 yards.

Still, there were other challenges. Gostkowski said the natural grass surface, patched in certain areas, “kind of stunk” and was elevated in certain areas. So he said he focused on slowing himself down and altered the approach he would normally take on FieldTurf.

“You can’t kick behind the ball because you don’t know what the surface is going to be like. On turf, you can do that and know how your foot is going to slide,” he said. “So you have to be clean and hit a good ball every time.”

Gostkowski felt he did so on a 55-yard attempt in the second quarter that missed, snapping his streak of 21 straight field goals that went back to Sept. 22 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“It wasn’t a bad kick, but things have to be pretty much perfect to make a kick from 50 plus. There’s no room for error,” he said. “I knew if I had another opportunity, I was right on it.”

He was, just as he’s been most of the season. Gostkowski has converted 12 field goals of 40 or more yards this season, breaking a Patriots record previously held by Vinatieri.

Just another reminder of the kicker he replaced eight years ago.

There have been some highs and lows along the way. Sunday’s clutch effort was perhaps the highest of them all.