To those who doubt Adam Vinatieri’s value, just look at this past week’s games, when the Giants, Bucs and Cowboys all lost because kickers couldn’t convert in the clutch.

As Jay Feely, Matt Bryant and Billy Cundiff proved this week, it’s a lot easier to kick in the middle of a game than when the outcome is on the line.

Vinatieri, whose last-second field goals won two Super Bowls for New England, knows all about that.

He has established himself as the best kicker of this era and one of the best in NFL history with his clutch kicks. It’s not simply percentage – he ranks seventh on the career list at .818 – but it’s because he comes through when it counts most.

Feely of the Giants, Bryant of the Bucs and Cundiff of the Cowboys all failed, leaving their playoff-contending teams with bitter losses.

Feely missed a 40-yard attempt at the end of regulation and two more in overtime as the Giants lost to the Seahawks 24-21 in Seattle. He was the most obvious goat.

He also was the most apologetic, a standup guy who addressed his teammates in the locker room after they clearly outplayed the team with the NFC’s best record in their own stadium.

“I told them I let them down,” said Feely, 23-of-25 entering the game. “It was just terrible, but this is what being a man is all about, being able to accept when you didn’t come through.

“When I make a mistake with my kids at home, I sit down with them and say I’m sorry’ and that I made a mistake and that I’m going to be a better dad. And you do the same thing with your job. I said, Hey, I’m sorry that I didn’t come through today.’ The good thing is that this wasn’t a playoff game and that it’s not the end of the year.”

Feely’s misses were a fitting preview for next week’s showdown at the Meadowlands for the NFC East lead between New York and Dallas.

Cundiff hooked a 34-yarder midway through the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game with Denver, a 24-21 overtime loss (yes, the same score as the Giants-Seahawks game).

Kickers hang together, an itinerant lot who usually can be seen talking at midfield before a game. They also are linked by circumstance, as Feely and Cundiff will be next Sunday.

Bryant, who missed a 29-yarder that could have tied the game with 2:47 left in Tampa Bay’s 13-10 loss to Chicago, also was part of a strange game involving Cundiff. In a Monday night game two years ago, he was kicking for the Giants against the Cowboys and made a 30-yarder with 11 seconds left to give New York a 32-29 lead.

But his kickoff went out of bounds, Quincy Carter completed a 25-yard pass to Antonio Bryant and Cundiff kicked a 52-yarder to tie the game. Then Cundiff kicked another, his seventh of the game, to win it in overtime.

Kicking is a fickle life.

This season, Cundiff made a 56-yarder against Detroit the Sunday before the Denver game. And that one came in his first game back with the Cowboys after being released during training camp.

Turns out, the 2003 game has been his career highlight. He was 20-of-26 for Dallas last season but didn’t do anything spectacular for coach Bill Parcells, who has never liked kickers because he doesn’t consider them “real” football players. When Cundiff came back this year, he was Dallas’ third kicker of the season.

Feely was signed by the Giants as a free agent last spring after a four-year career in Atlanta, where he made just over 77 percent of his attempts, not very good considering he was playing eight games a season indoors.

But until Sunday, he was a pleasant surprise for the Giants, especially considering he was playing in the Meadowlands, where swirling winds make it one of the most difficult venues for kickers.

Still, none of his field goal attempts this year had come with the game on the line – until Sunday.

Tiki Barber, who set up the third miss with a 49-yard run, said he was thinking before the attempt: “There is no way. I will give you my house if he misses this one.”

Feely missed from 45 yards.

In fact, Barber should have staked his house on the first kick, not the third.

Pressure kicking is mental, much as putting under pressure is for a golfer – once you miss, you miss again. Everyone is great in warmups – golfers on the driving range or putting green, and guys such as Feely, Cundiff and Bryant kicking the ball through the uprights with ease from 50 yards or more.

But ask Vinatieri about kicking for a game or a championship. Or through driving snow to tie and then win a playoff game, as he did against the Raiders in 2002.

“If you step on the field and just think about the kicking instead of the other stuff, take a big deep breath and really focus in on your job, then the rest of the stuff disappears, the crowd noise, all that stuff,” he says. “You really don’t hear it.”

Feely, Cundiff and Bryant heard it this week.


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