It seemed, at least for a few games, that Billy Cundiff had brought some stability to the Ravens' kicking game after he was signed to replace Steve Hauschka at midseason. He made nine of his first 11 field-goal attempts, including the game-winner at home in overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 29.
But he didn't finish the season particularly strong, converting just three of six tries in the Ravens' final three games, including a 37-yard miss and a 51-yard miss in the regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders.
In Cundiff's defense, bad snaps by Matt Katula might have contributed to both his misses against Oakland. That's the way Katula sees it, at least, vowing that he had to do something to "earn back Billy's trust" after the Raiders game.
But Cundiff is convinced he can make a field goal beyond 50 yards, and that if given the opportunity to make a kick like that in the playoffs, he'll nail it.
"It wasn't like I didn't have that in me," Cundiff said. "It wasn't like I went out there thinking, 'OK, Coach is making me kick a 51-yarder and this is out of my range.' Things just got thrown off a bit. I didn't kick the ball as well as I should have, but then you look at it and it's a terrible operation, a terrible kick, and it should have easily been a make. Things just didn't click this game."
The one wild card is the weather in New England, which could be cold and snowy Sunday. Cundiff has kicked at Gillette Stadium before - sort of - but not since 2003 when he was with the Dallas Cowboys and the playing surface was natural grass. The Patriots now use synthetic turf, similar to what the Ravens have at M&T Bank Stadium.
"We played a Sunday night game there in 2003, but I actually didn't get on the field because we got shut out 13-0," Cundiff said. "So technically I haven't kicked there. But I had a workout there in 2007. It's the same as it is here [in Baltimore]. It's going to be cold and there is going to be a little bit of wind. The wind comes into play when you're kicking longer field goals. But it's really just about committing to a good line, kicking it down that line and trusting it. [Because] if you don't, that's when the wind starts to affect you. If you're committed to the shot, it will go right where you want it."
Cundiff hasn't kicked in the playoffs since 2006, when he was 0-for-1 in the New Orleans Saints' 39-14 loss to the Chicago Bears in the NFC championship. But he conceded that two years of knowing he was kicking for his job in every workout might help him handle the playoff pressure this week. It's unclear whether he'll be in the Ravens' plans next season, but a good performance in the postseason could bolster his case.
"For me, you could say the playoffs are a situation where I've got nothing to lose," Cundiff said. "That's how I view it. I've been out of football, I've been counted out by a lot of people. I've had a lot of workouts. I've had a lot of situations where people have written me off. So the only thing I can do is go out there, do my best and let it all hang out. As cliche as it sounds, that's my only option. There is really nothing to worry about. A year ago, I'm sitting at home. Where do I want to be? I just want to be on any team. Now I'm on a team that's in the playoffs. This is the best situation I could have ever asked for."
Rookie success Michael Oher
played in just one bowl game in four years at Mississippi. He has already matched that postseason success in his first year in the NFL.
The rookie offensive tackle gets his first taste of the playoffs when the Ravens visit the Patriots. Oher already understands the intensity surrounding Sunday's contest.
"It's definitely up a notch," he said. "The sense of urgency is going to be up a little bit, and there's definitely going to be a different feeling with the game."
Oher, 23, has started every game this season - including five at left tackle in place of the injured Jared Gaither. But Oher said his mindset for Sunday is slightly different.
"People always say you approach every game the same. You don't," he said. "You get fired up [more] for some games than you do others. This will be one of those games where you're fired up like you're playing your rival."
With Gaither expected to man the left side, Oher will return to right tackle and could tangle with Patriots defensive end Ty Warren, who had some not-so-nice things to say about Oher after the teams' first meeting.
"As a young player, he's a little mouthy," Warren said Oct. 5, the day after the game. "I didn't respect that much. ... It wasn't genuine. Some people say stuff they mean, and other times people say stuff for a crowd. It wasn't all directed toward me. It was real ... fraudulent. I just don't respect stuff like that. But I can see him being a good player in this league."
Reminded of those comments, Oher didn't offer much of a reaction - or apologize.