The Patriots lost the AFC Championship game 20-18 after a missed 2-point conversion in the game's closing seconds. They wouldn't have needed to go for two had Stephen Gostkowski not missed an earlier extra point.
Let me summarize why this is completely unbelievable. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers ever to kick, and he's been particularly good at extra points. Extra points, even with the NFL's new rule, never matter. And yet one of the teams in the Super Bowl will be there because Gostkowski missed an extra point.
Even with longer kicks, missed PATs almost never affected games
A lot of ruckus was made over the NFL's new extra point rule, which pushed the point-after touchdown kick back to the 15-yard line. More ruckus was made when -- shocker! -- kickers missed these attempts more than when the ball was spotted at the 2-yard line.
But it's not like kickers missed the majority of their extra points. In fact, kickers hit 94.2 percent of their extra points, which is actually slightly higher than we expected based on the way kickers historically kicked from between 30 and 35 yards.
In its first season, the new extra point rule led to more misses, but it didn't necessarily change the way many games played out. Of the 68 games in which a kicker missed an extra point, 39 were won by the team whose kicker missed, so the missed kicks didn't change the end result. Of the other 29 games, 23 were decided by more than six points -- again, it would be hard to argue the missed kicks affected the end result.
Of those other six, four were situations where the losing team's end-of-game strategy wasn't particularly changed by the slightly larger deficit. You could only argue two games were directly affected by missed kicks: Jacksonville's 41-38 loss to Tennessee, where Jason Myers' two misses and a missed 2-point conversion in the first half provided the 3-point margin, and St. Louis' 16-13 loss to Baltimore, where Greg Zuerlein's early miss left the Rams tied instead of leading in the fourth quarter. They had to try and score instead of hold in the game's closing minutes, and fumbled, leading to a Ravens game-winning field goal.
But of every game this season, none had been directly decided by a single missed extra point. Even if you include the two where you could argue missed extra points decided the end result, that's two games out of 256. For all the hubbub, less than one percent of the NFL's games came were decided by the new rule on extra points.
Stephen Gostkowski is the best extra-point kicker of all time
The Patriots' long-time kicker isn't just one of the top kickers currently in the NFL. He's one of the best of all time. This season, he went 33-for-36 on field goals, making him the NFL's fourth-most accurate kicker, and this season was no outlier. For his career, Gostkowski has hit 87.342 percent of his attempts, making him the third-most accurate kicker in the league's history.
But he's especially great at hitting extra points. Gostkowski was perfect on 52 extra points in the regular season, making him one of just five kickers in the league to hit 100 percent of his tries -- and the only one who attempted more than 36. Gostkowski hadn't missed an extra point since he was a rookie in 2006, the longest streak in NFL history.
Even with the vast majority of the NFL's kickers shanking an XP here or there, Gostkowski kept this streak alive for a whole season from the longer length. That's like the NBA moving the 3-point line back to 30 feet and Stephen Curry still breaking records.
Gostkowski is so good, the Patriots asked for the new rule
The Pats have held onto Gostkowski for his entire career, because he's been spectacular. Bill Belichick, who spent most of his early career as a special teams coach and coordinator, knew this gave his squad an advantage. So at this year's spring meetings, the Patriots were the team who proposed longer extra points.
Sometimes, you can outsmart yourself.
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I don't want to make it seem as if Gostkowski's miss was the sole determinant in the Patriots' loss and the Broncos' trip to the Super Bowl. I'd point to an incredible day by Denver's pass rush, New England's piecemeal offensive line, two interceptions by Tom Brady, and a surprisingly strong game from Peyton Manning as bigger factors. And of course, the Pats still had an opportunity to win if they'd just scored the conclusive 2-point conversion that could've sent the game to overtime.
But it's hard to imagine a more improbable outcome than Gostkowski missing a crucial extra point. The odds of Gostkowski missing any extra point are incredibly slim. The odds of "a crucial extra point" even existing are also incredibly slim. The odds that New England would be virtually the only team hurt by the rule they proposed, and for it to happen in their most important game of the season is absolutely preposterous.
For those two things to come together in one of the NFL's biggest games is absolutely mind-boggling. Inexplicable moments like this are why sports are fascinating and beautiful. Inexplicable moments like this are why sports make us vomit and punch stuff, and why we'd all be better off if we didn't care so much about something so random.