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NFL Kickers: Heroics and Heartbreak

It’s not the most glamorous role, but punters and placekickers have the power to shift NFL games, and with them, a franchise’s playoffs hopes.

The “you had one job” discourse was strong in Week 1 for a number of kickers across the NFL.

In the 14 games on Sunday, 15 kicks were either blocked, veered left or right, or doinked off the crossbar. The kickers’ overall struggles have left front offices scrambling to find someone — anyone — who can boot it through the uprights with ease.

Perhaps the most notable blunder occurred when the Cincinnati Bengals faced the Pittsburgh Steelers. With the game on the line, Minkah Fitzpatrick blocked second-year kicker Evan McPherson’s PAT as time expired, sending the game to overtime. After the Steelers failed to get within scoring range on their first possession, Joe Burrow marched the reigning AFC champions down the field and handed it off to McPherson for an easy 29-yard try. After all, the Florida product drilled a 59-yarder in the first quarter.

But McPherson, who’s never missed inside 30 yards, sailed the ball so left it nearly flew out of frame.

The Steelers won the game after Chris Boswell connected on his second attempt in overtime.

Kicking was the deciding factor in Atlanta, too. Saints kicker Wil Lutz sank a 51-yarder, then New Orleans blocked Falcons’ Younghoe Koo’s 63-yard try as time expired, giving the visitors a 27-26 win and extending their winning streak at Mercedes Benz Stadium to five in a row.

When Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker picked up an ankle knock after making the first PAT on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, safety Justin Reid — who was a soccer star in high school — assumed temporary duties and succeeded on one of two attempts. The Chiefs went on to blow out the Cardinals, 44-21.

Back in August, Reid was just casually showing off when he knocked down a 60-yarder during training camp. So, it’s almost as if the former Houston Texan knew this day would soon come.

“I just got thrown straight into the fire, to be honest with you,” Reid told the media after the game. “They let me know Butker hurt his ankle and that I was up, and I was like, ‘OK. Let’s ride.’ I knew I was ready for it. Never short of confidence, so I had a lot of fun with it.

“This is on the record books,” Reid continued. “I didn’t keep the ball. I wasn’t worried about that. At this point, I always wanted to put it on tape just to be able to let people know: No. I really can kick. Well, it’s up there now, and I’m sure everyone’s seen it, so it’s going to be up there forever.”

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Indispensable, yet Replaceable

Analysts go on about how crucial a QB, wideout, or even pass-rusher is to a team’s success. But Week 1 demonstrated that a kicker’s job is not only indispensable, but disposable. After missing a 42-yard try to end the game in a 20-20 tie against the Tennessee Titans, the Indianapolis Colts cut Rodrigo Blankenship and signed Chase McLaughlin and Lucas Havrisik to the practice squad.

If Butker isn’t 100% ahead of Kansas City’s primetime showdown against the divisional rival Los Angeles Chargers, the Chiefs already have backup. They signed Matt Amendola to the practice squad Tuesday.

NFL kickers make a difference from start to finish. At kickoff, their punts determine field position for the opposing team. It sets the tone and, if the defense steps up, makes life easier on the offense. Later, the kicker can win the game on his own. Just ask the Bengals — two of their three playoff games last year came down to a single field goal.

We’re (very) early in the season, so there’s still plenty of time for kickers to redeem themselves. But just like opening weekend games determine possible Super Bowl contenders, they can also reveal which kickers are serious liabilities on the gridiron.

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