The NFL playoffs begin Saturday, and until the postseason winds down with the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, it’s all about Sam Ficken.
Sam the Bam. The Samurai Shoe. Kickin’ Ficken.
Ficken is the new kicker for the Los Angeles Rams. Their old kicker, Greg Zuerlein, is sidelined by a back injury that flared up before the Rams demolished the Seahawks in Seattle. Zuerlein barely could walk that day, and yet he still made both of his field-goal attempts. He finished his season 38-of-40 on field goals and 44-of-46 on extra points – historically impressive numbers for a team that wasn’t expected to win more than five or six games.
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The Rams ended up winning 11, and are 6.5-point favorites Saturday to beat Atlanta. If Zuerlein is kicking, Los Angeles easily eliminates the Falcons before rolling through the rest of a flawed NFC playoff field.
But Sam Ficken is kicking, and all bets are off.
As recently as three weeks ago, Ficken was working at a brokerage firm in Connecticut. Then Zuerlein’s back went out, and the Rams signed the 25-year old Penn State product to replace the league’s most dependable kicker.
Ficken knows nothing about playoff pressure – for that matter, the Rams know nothing about playoff pressure – but he’s familiar with the ups and downs of a craft demanding that muscle memory prevails over brain-lock. Early in 2012, his first season as Penn State’s full-time kicker, Ficken attempted five field goals against Virginia and missed four of them. The Nittany Lions lost by a point, and you can imagine all the gift boxes and sympathy cards he got from his dear friends in Happy Valley.
But Ficken persevered, and went on to set a school record the following season by kicking 15 consecutive field goals. So it’s not as if this is some chump the Rams found on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
This is a once and future brokerage-firm employee the Rams found in Connecticut.
That the result of a playoff game will be in the hands – er, leg – of Ficken appears inevitable. Los Angeles’ 42-7 thumping of the Seahawks was an aberration. The Rams typically compete in one-score games that swing their way with the help of superior special teams execution.
Between Zuerlein’s long-distance accuracy and Johnny Hekker’s uncanny ability to place punts on a dime, the Rams were primed for an extended playoff run. If the spotlight doesn’t melt Ficken, the extended playoff run still is attainable, because there is no obvious favorite in the Super Bowl 52 derby.
The Eagles, the NFC’s No. 1 seed, have been groping with inertia since Nick Foles replaced injured quarterback Carson Wentz. During that Christmas night abomination against Oakland, the Eagles looked like the most inept offensive unit I’ve ever seen. Which is saying something, as I’m a Chicago native who grew up following Bears teams unaccustomed to the red zone, much less the end zone.
The Vikings went 13-3 to qualify as a No. 2 seed, but that 13-3 record was built on going 5-1 in a dumpster NFC North. The Saints loom as a dark horse – they’ll be home Sunday in New Orleans, where they’ll take care of business against the Panthers – but under head coach Sean Payton, the Saints haven’t distinguished themselves as playoff road warriors.
The AFC bracket is as unstable as its NFC counterpart. The Patriots are the team to beat, as usual. What isn’t usual is quarterback Tom Brady’s reliance on a personal fitness trainer who used to have access to the team’s practice facility and now doesn’t. It’s all very awkward, compounded by an ESPN report of Brady taking the news of the curiously timed trade that sent backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers with a wink and a smile.
Pittsburgh is the No. 2 seed, and here is all you need to know about the Steelers: They faced the Bears this season and were out-gained by 54 yards and outscored by six points. I know the mantra – on any given Sunday, there are no such things as sure things in the NFL, blah-blah-blah – but a team that accumulates 54 fewer yards against the Chicago Bears is a team not to be feared.
It’s a wide-open playoff season, and had Zuerlein remained healthy, my hunch was on the Rams to win it all. Zuerlein is not healthy, so my hunch is on...
The Rams, what the heck. Running back Todd Gurley is an Offensive Player of the Year candidate. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a Defensive Player of the Year Candidate. Rookie Sean McVay is a Coach of the Year candidate. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is an Assistant Coach of the Year candidate.
Sam Ficken, meanwhile, is an NFL Story of the Year candidate. A few weeks ago, he was stuck in an office. If he sets up for a clutch field goal Saturday, it’ll either be the heart-breaking conclusion of an improbable saga, or a heart-warming triumph suggesting the best is yet to come.
Sports is so cool.