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Cruel Is the Word for Cundiff's Fate

Pity the poor kicker.

Make a game-winner, and the team is celebrated. Miss it, and you live in infamy.

Think "Super Bowl kicker," and which name comes to mind first: Scott Norwood or Jim O'Brien?

Norwood missed the 47-yarder in 1990 that would have started Buffalo's run of four straight Super Bowls with a win. Instead, the Bills went 0-for-4, and none of the other three losses were remotely close.

All O'Brien did was hit a 32-yarder with five seconds to play that gave Baltimore a win in Super Bowl V.

Billy Cundiff will be reminded for the rest of his life of the 32-yarder he yanked to the left, denying Baltimore a chance to get to Super Bowl XLIV.

Ravens fans will never forget the name.

The kick, with 11 seconds to go, would have sent the AFC championship game into overtime. The snap was good, the hold was good, the plant was good. Cundiff just hit a pull-hook, one of the most sickening of flight paths.

Was he overcompensating?

In his first 11 games this season, Cundiff was 18-for-18 from inside the 40. Then, in the 12th game, in Cleveland, he missed from 34 and 41, both kicks wide right. At San Diego two weeks later, another miss, from 36, again wide right.

Did he fear the miss to the right? Did he focus too hard on coming across the ball?

He was successful from 48 and 44 against Houston in the divisional round, and from 20 and 39 against New England.

But kickers have to be perfect, or else.

Cundiff knows. In 2005, he was one of three kickers released by the Dallas Cowboys after missing several field-goal attempts between 30 and 40 yards. He was out of the league for two years. Then, with Baltimore in the last three regular seasons, he made 17 of 20 from that distance, 85 percent.

Still, all anyone's going to remember is the one that got away.

New England defeated Baltimore despite a host of uncharacteristic performances.

Tom Brady was mortal, throwing two interceptions and no touchdown passes, though he did run for a score. He and Joe Flacco were both 22-for-36, but Flacco hit for more yardage (306 to 229), two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Flacco had the two biggest pass plays, a 42-yarder to a wide-open Torrey Smith and a 37-yard post to Anquan Boldin. Both set up scores for the Ravens.

The porous Patriots defense largely kept the Baltimore running game in check, especially in the first half. The Ravens got just 15 yards out of eight first-down runs in the half, opening it up effectively after the intermission (six first-down runs for 31 yards).

As expected, a tight end caught a touchdown pass. Unexpectedly, it was a Baltimore tight end, Dennis Pitta, who had five catches and the Ravens' first TD. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 12 catches and 153 yards, but the previously indestructible Gronkowski limped off the field near the end of the third quarter with an injured ankle.

With New England leading 23-20, Brandon Spikes gave the Pats a key turnover in the fourth quarter with an interception that stopped a Ravens drive in New England territory, returning it to midfield. But Brady immediately gave the ball back by throwing his second pick into double coverage in the end zone, his nemesis Bernard Pollard tipping the ball to Jimmy Smith, who took it back to the Baltimore 38.

That Ravens drive stalled thanks to consecutive big plays up the middle by Vince Wilfork. On third-and-3 at the Patriots 30, the Ravens tried running Rice out of the shotgun for the first time all day. Wilfork smelled the play and stuffed it for a loss of 3.

Now fourth-and-6 at the 33 - too far for a Cundiff field-goal attempt, as he was 1-for-6 on the year from 50 or more - Wilfork's power rush up the middle got to Flacco, who threw the ball out of bounds with the nose tackle pulling him down.

On the final drive of the game, Flacco and Boldin combined for three completions and 51 yards, moving Baltimore deep into New England territory. Overtime loomed, but unlike in the 49ers-Giants NFC clash, it was not to be.

Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl for the fifth time in 11 seasons. Adam Vinatieri had a lot to do with those victories, but despite his heroics, Bill Belichick let him go to Indianapolis after the 2005 season.

Lawrence Tynes has played in two NFC championship games with the Giants - and won both with overtime kicks. How many Giants fans consider him a hero for either of them?

When the kicker does his job, the quarterback wins the game. When he doesn't, he is remembered forever.

It's the cruelest job in sports.

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.

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