Perhaps the NFL's longest-running source of jokes is kickers -- right up until the point that one of them decides the outcome of a game. The reliability of place-kickers has never been more important than this season as the league experiments with longer extra points, and rarely will we see kickers affect a game more directly than in the Baltimore Ravens' 23-20 overtime victory Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On the one hand, Steelers place-kicker Josh Scobee missed two opportunities that would have won the game, leaving coach Mike Tomlin's game-management strategy in shambles during overtime. Meanwhile, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker maintained his perfect career record in converting clutch field goals in one of the NFL's most difficult environments for kicking, lifting Baltimore to a most unexpected victory.
The Steelers were so desperate for a reliable place-kicker after Shaun Suisham's preseason knee injury that they gave the Jacksonville Jaguars a sixth-round draft pick for Scobee and guaranteed his $2.5 million base salary. But Scobee already has missed four field goals and an extra point in four games, and the Steelers might have no choice but to join the three other NFL teams -- the Washington Redskins, Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles -- who have already swapped out place-kickers this season.
League-wide, field goal conversion rates have remained steady (84.7 percent) compared to the first three weeks of 2014 (84.9 percent). But the new 33-yard extra point has introduced an added level of pressure -- 13 have already been missed -- and anecdotically a greater impact on games.
One case in point: Tampa Bay Buccaneers place-kicker Kyle Brindza missed two field goals and an extra point on Sunday, accounting for seven points of the 10-point margin in the Bucs' 19-9 loss to the Texans.
Tucker, on the other hand, drilled a 52-yard field goal Thursday night to win in overtime at Heinz Field -- a stadium where kickers have missed 74.1 percent of their attempts from at least 50 yards since it opened in 2001, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He has now converted all 12 of his career attempts to either tie or put his team ahead in the fourth quarter or overtime of a game, a remarkable achievement.
At the moment, Tucker is the difference in at least one game for the Ravens this season. Overall, he has given the team one of the most valuable kicking games in the league.
The chart in this post ranks each team based on "Expected Points Added" from their kicking games. In essence, this metric measures the amount of points provided above or below what should be expected based on field position.
It's no surprise to see the Ravens among the top six and the Steelers among the bottom four in this reckoning. When it came to kicking, no one was joking Thursday night.