The running gag in NFL locker rooms is that kickers aren’t really football players – just guys who hang around on the field before the game chatting with the other team’s kickers.

Except when guys like Rob Bironas, Josh Brown, Martin Gramatica and Phil Dawson step up in the final seconds and win the game. Each of them did it Sunday, most remarkably Bironas, who drilled a 60-yarder for Tennessee to beat Indianapolis 20-17. It wasn’t quite the 62-yard bomb that Matt Bryant made earlier this season for Tampa Bay, but it was pretty awesome all the same, even with the wind at his back.

For Brown, it was the fourth time this year he has kicked a game-winning field goal for the Seahawks in the last minute, this one a 50-yarder with 4 seconds left to give Seattle a 23-20 win over Denver. Brown had missed from 40 and 53 yards earlier in the game.

“He pointed out that if he had made the earlier ones, we wouldn’t have been in that position at the end,” coach Mike Holmgren said, showing a little hint of the cynicism that coaches have toward kickers.

Bironas sealed Tennessee’s win after Jeff Fisher had first decided to punt and send the game into overtime. Then the Titans sent out their kicker, who blasted a line drive through the uprights – it looked like it might have been good from 65, two yards better than the NFL record of 63.

Dawson had a “routine” kick – if any overtime kick can be routine – a 33-yarder to give Cleveland a 31-28 win over Kansas City. The hero in that game was second-year QB Derek Anderson who replaced the injured Charlie Frye, threw two late touchdown passes, then scrambled to set up Dawson’s winning kick.

Then there was Gramatica – whose 46-yarder to beat the Giants 23-20 for the Cowboys was redemption both for himself and Bill Parcells, who rarely considers kickers “real” football players. Two decades ago, for example, he kept an injury replacement named Eric Schubert even though Schubert, whose career kicking percentage was just 53.8 (14-of-26) even had trouble kicking extra points.

That’s because Schubert would run down under kickoffs and make tackles – in other words, a “real football player.”

So it wasn’t a surprise when last week, the Tuna grew impatient with Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history – a guy he had paid a $2.5 million bonus last spring to replace the three inconsistent kickers he had last season.

Whoops. After going 13-for-18 he was cut.

Enter Gramatica, who once was so good he was nicknamed “Automatica,” although his brother Bill was better known in some circles because he once tore a knee ligament jumping in the air to celebrate a routine field goal. But it didn’t last – kickers are like golfers: Once their swing goes, they have trouble getting it back.

From 1999-2002, Gramatica was one of the NFL’s top kickers with Tampa Bay. He made 110 of 134, a percentage of 82.1. He was also accurate from long distance, making five of seven from outside 50 yards in 2000 and five of six in 2002, when the Bucs won the Super Bowl.

Then he started to slide, making 16-of-26 in 2003 before being cut by Jon Gruden, another guy who isn’t exactly fond of kickers. So he bounced to the Colts when Vanderjagt was hurt. There he played for his old Tampa coach Tony Dungy, but reverted to kickoff-man when Vangerjagt returned. (One of the raps on Vanderjagt – one Parcells loathed – was that he didn’t like to kick off.)

When Gramatica resurfaced in Dallas last week, he had been off and on rosters – he was in New England’s camp this summer, a thankless “opportunity” because the Patriots had used a fourth-round pick on Stephen Gostkowski and teams don’t cut kickers they draft unless they’re absolutely awful.

“It’s been a rough couple of years for me,” he said, “Being out all last year and then not making any teams this year.”

So how much was really expected Sunday? Not much – especially after his first attempt against the Giants in the tricky winds at the Meadowlands was a 44-yard wobbler that was short and right.

But he seemed better in the other direction, making 41- and 35-yarders. So when he stepped up to try a 46-yarder less than a minute after the Giants had scored to tie the game at 20-all, he was confident. And he drilled it through with ease.

“He made me look good,” said Parcells, about the highest compliment THAT coach can pay a kicker. In fact, the Tuna actually was talking more about himself – “he made ME look good.”

AP-ES-12-04-06 1712EST

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