Ravens are caught off guard by Stover's off-target kicks

Kicker's missed field-goal tries surprise team in past two losses

Pro Football

December 29, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Matt Stover doesn't waste time trying to figure out if the position he is in -- where perfection is not only expected, but demanded -- is fair. Instead, the veteran kicker acknowledges, even relishes, the notion that he, as much as any Raven, can dictate momentum in a game, for better or worse.

While Stover cruised through much of this season as his team's most dependable player, he has stumbled the past two games, missing a field goal that seemed to deflate the team.

Stover's miss from 44 yards in Sunday's 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers would have cut the Ravens' deficit to a touchdown in the third quarter, but instead, Pittsburgh extended its lead to 13 on its next drive.

A week earlier, Stover's 31-yard attempt hit a Ravens lineman, and the Indianapolis Colts scored a touchdown five plays later to open a 17-point lead in the third quarter.

In many respects, Stover is a product of his success. Had he been less reliable, the Ravens might not have seemed so visibly stunned when his attempts went awry the past two games. He had missed only once previously this season.

"What I have to do is make sure I stay consistent, because that is what this team needs," Stover said. "We need every point on the board. I know that. Me missing the one in this game and getting it blocked in the Indianapolis game hurt us."

Much like when the Ravens lose the battle at the line of scrimmage or have a costly turnover, bad things seem to happen when Stover misses a kick.

"It's a little like when people run the ball on us," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It is a little unusual for us. It catches you off-guard and it hits you emotionally when Matt has the one blocked in Indianapolis, then [Sunday]. That happens, things happen. It catches you off guard because you aren't used to seeing that."

Until recently, the Ravens had been good at shaking off a Stover miss. Overall, the Ravens are 5-3 the past two seasons when Stover has missed.

Still, Stover realizes how important he is to a team that is 31st in total offense and 21st in scoring (19.1 points a game).

"I've been on a team that I wasn't that [important]," Stover said. "I wasn't the guy they had to lean on. I didn't like it. My competitive spirit wants to be the guy who can make a difference on the team. Some people call me crazy, but I wouldn't want it any other way."

And he will not give himself the chance to have it another way for at least one more season.

Stover, 36, has decided to come back for his 16th season next year, a comforting thought for an organization that might see its fair share of turnover if the team fails to make the playoffs this season.

Provided he rebounds for a perfect afternoon and makes at least one kick Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, Stover will finish the year having connected on at least 90 percent of his attempts. It would be the second-highest percentage of Stover's career (he made 92.9 percent of his kicks in 1994 with the Cleveland Browns).

Stover, who is first alternate for the AFC Pro Bowl team, has also had to kick off in place of Wade Richey four times this year, including three in the past four games. He says his leg, though, is not wearing down.

"What's been great is that during training camp and the first part of the season, I wasn't [kicking off] at all," Stover said. "But I do train in order that I can handle that during the course of the season."

Stover works just as hard mentally, putting himself through a variety of exercises (including one where he talks to himself) before each attempt, all in the name of perfection.

"I realize in this league it's about now, results, not about what you have done but about what you are going to do," Stover said. "As long as this team feels like I can continue to keep the performance at a level that they want me or need me to, I feel like the likelihood of me being here for a while is good.

"If ever you go out there in an NFL game and don't want to make the difference or don't want the game on your shoulder, don't play. Because once you become fearful of that, that's when you need to put the helmet down and go."

The competition An update on the three teams battling the Ravens for the final wild-card spot

Buffalo Bills (9-6)

Rookie receiver Lee Evans has played a big role in the Bills' resurgence after an 0-4 start.

He has seven touchdowns in the past five games, including two in a 41-7 win at San Francisco on Sunday. Evans' nine touchdowns lead all rookies this season and are a franchise best among receivers.

That's a significant jump in production for Evans, who has 35 catches for 577 yards and eight scores in his past eight games compared to 11 catches for 203 yards and a touchdown in his first seven.

"I can't necessarily say I could foresee this run," Evans said. "But it's been great."

Denver Broncos (9-6)

The Broncos find themselves in control of their playoff destiny, but they have no control over the biggest questions: Will the Colts play their starters in the season finale Sunday, and if so, for how long?

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