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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The football struck the left upright with enough force to create a loud clang, ricocheting at a sharp downward angle over the crossbar.
After taking his hands off his helmet Sunday and breaking into a smile once long snapper Matt Katula informed him that he had made yet another field goal, Baltimore Ravens veteran kicker Matt Stover pointed triumphantly and thankfully toward the heavens.
It was the closest Stover has come in 53 weeks to missing a field goal as heâ€™s in the midst of a career-high streak of 34 in a row. It wasnâ€™t exactly perfect form, but it was another perfect result for the Ravensâ€™ most effective offensive weapon.
With Stover booting four field goals after having just one in the previous four games, the Ravens had just enough offense to claim a 26-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
â€œI couldnâ€™t tell if it was going out or going in, so I watched the referees and Matt went, â€˜Yeah!â€™â€ said Stover, the third-most accurate kicker in NFL history.
â€œThatâ€™s how I found out I made it and I could relax. If I would have missed any of those field goals, it creates a whole different scenario for Brian Billick with regard to play-calling.
"When theyâ€™re counting on you to do a job, you had better make sure youâ€™re doing it. Thatâ€™s what winning is all about.â€
The eighth-leading scorer in the NFL, Stover scored the Ravensâ€™ final dozen points and all of their nine points after halftime as he made kicks from 43, 25, 36 and 25 yards.
Midway through the season, Stover has scored 61 points and converted all 14 of his field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder. Only one other full-time kicker in the league — Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould, a former Raven who has hit 22 of 22 attempts — has connected on every field goal.
â€œItâ€™s good to see Stover pull through when we needed him,â€ tight end Todd Heap said. â€œHeâ€™s always so reliable and accurate, so you would be surprised if he missed one.â€
Stover had been underutilized until Sunday, but an offense that faltered in the red zone against Cincinnati with 1 for 5 efficiency made him indispensable again. Stover hadnâ€™t seen such little work in a month-long stretch since 1996, the Ravensâ€™ inaugural season.
â€œI said, â€˜Letâ€™s just be patient because the opportunities are coming,â€™â€ Stover said. â€œI didnâ€™t know how. I didnâ€™t know when, but I knew theyâ€™d be there, and they came.â€
Although Stover has only had two field goals blocked this decade, Billick opted not to risk having him attempt a fifth field goal that could have built a nine-point lead in the final minute and made it a two-score game.
Instead, Billick had quarterback Steve McNair scramble on fourth down to kill time before throwing it out of bounds and giving the Bengals possession at their 28-yard line with 18 seconds remaining.
It was a calculated risk that Billick said he took because he preferred the odds of his defense not allowing a long touchdown drive over a potential catastrophe on a blocked kick, which the Dallas Cowboys experienced Sunday in a loss to the Washington Redskins.
Stover said he didnâ€™t disagree with Billickâ€™s decision, but he reminded the coach/offensive coordinator of his presence just in case he wanted to go for the chip shot.
â€œI put myself right in front of Brian to know that Iâ€™m ready,â€ Stover said. â€œHeâ€™s the head coach and he makes those calls. Iâ€™ll support him in whatever he wants to do. Iâ€™m going to trust Brian. You can get a field goal blocked.â€
After a kickoff return earlier in the game, Stover found himself in the middle of a brief skirmish between Ravens special-teams ace Gary Stills and Bengals linebacker Caleb Miller. Trying to play peace-maker, Stover got hit in the jaw as gratitude.
He quickly removed himself from the situation, showing his intelligence and cool head in a way that has mirrored his perfect season. The former Pro Bowl kicker knew the Ravens would probably need his right foot far more than his fists.
Stover’s field goal streak is the third-longest in NFL history behind Mike Vanderjagt (42) and Gary Anderson (40). He hasn’t missed a kick since the seventh game of last season.
â€œEvery field goal, every point matters,â€ Stover said. â€œLetâ€™s hope the streak stays alive for a long time.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland