Clutch (adj.): Tending to be successful in tense or critical situations.
That is the one word that can precisely describe the season—and career—that Broncos fifth-year kicker Matt Prater has had. In critical situations with the game on the line, Denver's placekicker has come through time and time again.
When the NFL announced last year that kickoffs would be moved up from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line for safety reasons, it made kickoffs easier for Prater, but he was not thrilled about the ruling.
“I don’t like it because kickoffs have always been an area where I can separate myself from other guys in the league,” Prater told Naples News in October. “Now a lot of guys are kicking touchbacks because it’s so much easier. I almost wish it was still from the 30.”
Despite the rule change, Prater still owned the best touchback percentage during the regular season, booting 47-of-his-69 kickoffs for touchbacks (68.1%), proving he has one of the strongest legs in the league. With opponents rarely able to return kicks, the Broncos didn't allow a single return for a touchdown in 2011, which tied for first in the AFC.
As important as they are, kickoffs were not what defined Prater's 2011 season. Clutch field goal attempts were. Prater's right leg— especially at home, in the Denver's mile high altitude—has been a weapon that has served the Broncos offense well.
"There's no doubt his leg strength is a weapon, in particular here at home with the altitude," Broncos Head Coach John Fox said back in December. "He's been great, he's been clutch."
Prater converted 6-of-7 field goals in five games during the final month of the season, two of them longer than fifty yards. The NFL noticed, and Prater was named the AFC's Special Teams Player of the Month for the second time in his career.
After converting all four of his attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime during the regular season, Prater brought his career conversion rate to 28-of-29 in those circumstances. Near perfect in crunch time, Prater made 19-of-his-25 (.760) field goals during the regular season with a long of 59 yards.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers come to Sports Authority Field on Sunday, the Broncos can secure their first playoff victory since 2006. If the situation is right (Denver has the ball in the closing minutes of a close game), Prater may get the chance to win a game for the fifth time this season.
“He could line up from 65-yards out and there’s no doubt,” Broncos receiver Eric Decker said in December. “When you get to 70, maybe he’d be close [to not nailing it through].”