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Patriots have such incredible field goal luck that it has to be skill

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The Patriots are luckier than any team in the league in having clutch kicks go in their favor.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

There’s a reason why New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick believes that K Stephen Gostkowski is one of the ten most important players on the roster. Other than Tom Brady, no other player on the roster has so much pressure on their shoulders every time they take the field, and Gostkowski faces arguably greater scrutiny than Brady.

Either Gostkowski makes the kick, or he does not. He’s either “back” or he’s still in a funk. There’s nothing in between. And while Brady’s afforded a ugly Kansas City Chiefs-level performance every now and then, fans grew accustomed to Gostkowski being automatic, which makes his subsequent misses even more egregious.

But Patriots fans have been fortunate to have their kicking game under control for the past two decades, going from potential Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri to All Pro Stephen Gostkowski, with a few games of Shayne Graham sprinkled in.

Just how more fortunate are Patriots fans compared to other fanbases around the league? Football Outsiders looked at which teams have the best and the worst luck when it comes to kickers in clutch situations- when the team is tied or down by 1-3 points with 2 minutes left in the game or in overtime.

According to the data that dates back to 2002, the Patriots have converted the highest rate of clutch field goals in the league, making 17 of 19 attempts for 89.5%. The two misses came roughly a decade apart, with Adam Vinatieri blocked in a 20-20 game against the 2003 Texans in overtime (he made the subsequent kick to win 23-20) and then Stephen Gostkowski missed a 42-yard kick against the 2012 Cardinals as the Patriots lost 20-18.

The Denver Broncos rank second thanks to the Mile High air, as they’ve converted 27 of 31 clutch attempts, with the Colts ranking third with 19 of 22. I don’t think anyone should be surprised that three of the four most successful AFC franchises since 2002 rank at the top of field goal luck.

But the Football Outsiders data goes further to analyze which teams benefit the most from missed clutch field goals and, again, the Patriots are the luckiest with opposing teams connecting on a meager 8 of 17 attempts (47.1%). So not only are the Patriots making the most kicks, but their opponents are missing the most kicks, too.

Football Outsiders essentially combines these kicks into “favorable” and “unfavorable”- with kicks for made and kicks against missed as “favorable” and kicks for missed and kicks against made as “unfavorable”- and the Patriots are again the luckiest. The Patriots have been on the field for 36 clutch field goal attempts since 2002 and 26 have gone in New England’s favor, or 72.2%.

Now the data is admittedly not perfect. It does not account for the distance of the field goal, which is easily the most important factor. A team that makes 10 of 10 “clutch” 20-yard field goals isn’t necessarily lucky; kickers are expected to make all of their field goals from that range. The distance of the kick is a crucial component missing from this analysis.

So I went through the Pro Football Reference database and found all the clutch kicks on my own and used their provided expected points model, which takes the distance of the kick into account. The model isn’t perfect because the expected points model doesn’t account for how much time is left in the game, so I made some minor adjustments (ie: a missed 60-yard field goal with 2 seconds left on the clock will not have a negative final expected points because the other team will not be able to lead a drive).

Based on the expected points model, the Broncos, Ravens, and Colts are the three luckiest teams on offense and the Patriots rank a solid seventh. The Broncos have value from kicking at Mile High and the Colts have value from the dome (in addition to having great kickers), while the Ravens went from Matt Stover to Justin Tucker, with a year to forget of Billy Cundiff in the middle. But most importantly, they hit long field goals.

The Broncos connected on 9 of 10 field goals of 45+ yards, the Colts on 8 of 9, and the Ravens 9 of 13 with all four misses from 50+. The Patriots have only had three clutch attempts from 45+ yards since 2002 and Gostkowski has connected on all three. Naturally, the expected points model rewards the other three teams for converting on more attempts.

But it also highlights that the Patriots aren’t necessarily super lucky when they convert kicks; the offense just puts them in a favorable position to attempt the game-winning or tying kick. The Patriots are simply skilled and take advantage of their opportunities on offense; it’s not luck at all.

The Patriots real luck comes when the other team lines up to take a kick, where the Patriots rank first in the league in expected points added from opposing clutch kicks. In fact, the Patriots have picked up 13 points of extra value when the other team lines up to take a kick.

Just as the Patriots and the “lucky” offensive teams convert on their long kicks, the Patriots have faced six clutch kicks of 45+ yards dating back to 2002. Opposing teams have converted zero of them. None. Nada. Teams cannot hit long-distance game winners against the Patriots. Add in the Billy Cundiff missed field goal from the 2011-12 AFC Championship Game with the Ravens and the Patriots are the luckiest team in the league at defending clutch field goal attempts.

And when you combine the expected value added by the Patriots kicking team in clutch situations to the value added by the Patriots kick blocking unit, and the Patriots rank as the second-luckiest team in the league in clutch kick scenarios, behind only the Broncos.

1. Broncos +22.4 points added
2. Patriots +20.8
3. Buccaneers +18.7
4. Vikings +13.7
5. Ravens +11.8
6. Seahawks +10.6
7-29. ...
30. Browns -10.9
31. Saints -17.0
32. Giants -24.2

These rankings are not too different from Football Outsiders’ “Favorable” rankings, but it adds the context that the Broncos have been much more fortunate on kick attempts than the Patriots have been, but that the Patriots are almost equally as fortunate when on defense.

And while I attribute the Patriots ability to set themselves up for success on kicking attempts, Vinatieri and Gostkowski still had to make their kicks. Perhaps I should attribute the Patriots defensive success as skill, too, or lack-thereof on behalf of their opponents. The Patriots deserve credit for investing so much into their kicking position to ensure they have the best possible talent in the league on their side.

That’s not luck. That’s skill.