Bengals kick it into stretch

Josh Brown

The punter is a hometown hero who made the Christmas Eve and Day rounds to the family from Beechmont Avenue through the Cut in the Hill into Northern Kentucky. The kicker just arrived in town three weeks ago from the other side of the country and had to fly all morning Monday to surprise his family for the first Christmas in his mother's home since he was 18.

But punter Kevin Huber and kicker Josh Brown combined to help bestow one of the greatest holiday gifts Bengaldom could imagine on the faithful. Their near flawless kicking paved the way for last Sunday's 13-10 victory in that tractor pull in Pittsburgh that eliminated the Steelers and elevated the Bengals to the playoffs.

"I don't know much about the history between the Bengals and Steelers," says Brown, who is a quick study. "It's just like the biological brother against the stepbrother beating up on each other. Who wants to be the stepbrother and who doesn't?"

Huber can tell Brown all about it. A graduate of McNicholas High School in his neighborhood of Anderson Township snuggled on the eastern edge of Cincinnati, a product of the University of Cincinnati and a fifth-round pick of the home team in 2009, the Christmas conversations were easy to call as he and his girlfriend made their visits. First to the various Anderson enclaves and then to see his dad's side of the family in Northern Kentucky, and then up I-71 just north of PBS to Silverton.

"Everybody," he says, "wanted to talk about the game in Pittsburgh and going to the playoffs and how stressful it was to watch. They were all into it."

The punter and the kicker are at the opposite ends of the NFL demographic.

Huber, 27, is capping off the finest season of his four-year career and is headed into the hometown team's record book at the end of Sunday's 1 p.m. regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium.  Brown, 33, is three games into his revival after a nine-year career with Seattle and St. Louis and could become the 50th man in NFL history to score 1,000 career points some time against the Ravens on Sunday.

Unemployed and under-packed on Dec. 6 when he arrived for a tryout on the day after Mike Nugent hurt his calf in a walkthrough, Brown has hit all but one of his nine field-goal tries and his 43-yard arrow with four seconds left Sunday split the uprights and the heart of Steeler Nation.


When Nugent didn't practice Thursday after practicing Wednesday full go for the first time since the injury, it became more and more evident that Brown probably kicks Sunday against Baltimore and all signs are pointing to him kicking in his 12th playoff game and 16th in Bengals postseason history when Cincinnati travels to one of the AFC's four division champs the weekend of Jan. 5-6.

Huber's exploits weren't as climactic but they were just as important in shutting down dangerous Steelers returner Antonio Brown on six yards to get the upper hand in field position in a grudging, gritty field position game.

"He had a great game; unbelievable," special teams coach Darrin Simmons says. "Anytime you have a net of 48.3 yards a punt, that's the difference in the game."

This isn't Brown's first rodeo. In his second season in the league, he hit 93 percent of his field goals. The next season, 2005, he kicked Seattle into the Super Bowl and he followed that up in '06 with four winners in the last few moments of regulation and overtime, two from 50 yards and beyond, where he is the NFL's active leader. He heads into the finale just eight points from 1,000 for his career.

But it slowly ebbed away until St. Louis let him go after last season.

"It seems like the last couple of years I've been trying to get back to the mental aspect of trying to be precise all the time," Brown says. "You can get lackadaisical in your career. Complacency settles in the way things are. Most likely that's what got me released. Just being satisfied with the status quo, that was a little bit of humble pie and I had to sit back and reevaluate what was important and what I was doing."

Brown, who has settled in Seattle, loves helping his wife raise their three children, now at the interesting ages of 14, 10 and 3. But he concluded when he was out of work this year that he needed to devote more focus and time to kicking if he was going to get the edge back.

"My wife was all for it," Brown says. "She told me to do what I had to do in order to be ready when the call came and I'll take care of everything else. That was important, to do my work in the morning and not get a phone call. To be uninterrupted working out, running, kicking; it was good to be able to focus like that and when my daughter got home from school at 1, 2 o'clock, I had everything done."


While Brown was back home going back to basics, Huber was refining the basics that had allowed him to improve every year during his first three seasons in the league. He changed around his grip to help him spin the ball back from the goal line on plus-50 punts, and he worked on getting the ball away from his body and cutting down the drop from his hand to his foot. Plus, he's ratcheted up his weekly regimen in the weight room in the second half of the season to prevent what he felt was a lack of strength later on in the year during the past few seasons.

The results have been a breakout year. If his gross and net totals hold, Huber would break the club records that have stood since the Johnson and Nixon administrations. His 46.5-yard gross would eclipse the 46.2 Dave Lewis had in that first playoff year of 1970, and the 41.8 net would shatter the 39.3 Dale Livingston authored in the club's first season of 1968.

"I honestly didn't know that, but if I do that, it's a good feat and it would be kind of cool to do that and get your name in the record books," Huber says. "That's always a pretty neat accomplishment and it's definitely something I'm going to look back on."

If helping his team wins games qualifies a punter for the Pro Bowl, then Huber should have been in the discussion for Hawaii with what Simmons says has to be a league-leading number of punts inside the 5. As it is, his 29 punts inside the 20 to go with the NFL's fifth-best net competes with AFC Pro Bowler Dustin Colquitt's 42.2 net and 26 inside the 20. Huber is one of 15 punters that have cracked what was once the magical 40-yard net.

Huber says Colquitt deserves it.

"Guys are absolutely killing it this year punting-wise. The numbers are I think higher than they ever have been. I think half the guys' nets are over 40 yards, which a couple of years ago, if you were above 40 yards it was like you're the best that ever was," Huber says. "And now in the last few years everybody's evolving.

"The punts are going further, guys are getting stronger, coverage guys are better. I think a lot of teams are starting to focus more on special teams and making special teams plays because they realize how much of a difference that makes. Our coverage guys have done a great job this year, making tackles, saving me if I've had a bad punt and stopping balls before they get to the end zone. They've done a great job. It's not just me hitting the ball, it's them getting down there and making plays."


Huber has punted his best on the road in tight games. With the season on the line last week he drilled a season-high four inside the 20, including balls at the Steelers 7 and 2. Three weeks ago in San Diego he put three inside the 20 to help preserve another field-position scrum, 20-13.

But he says his biggest punt last week wasn't the last one, one of those almost plus-50s he again kept out of the end zone with a 37-yarder Brown had to call for a fair catch at his 11 with 44 seconds left.

"We knew they were probably going to come after it with a rush. I just knew if I got a good punt off, the gunners were singled up, if I got a punt off, got a little bit of hang, they'd be able to get down there," Huber says. "I think the bigger one was probably right before the half because they had just scored."

Huber scorched a 52-yarder with 23 seconds left in the half from his 25 with the Bengals leading, 10-7. The kick allowed gunner Jeromy Miles to pin Brown for a five-yard loss at the Steelers 18.

"That's probably the last thing you want to do is give them the ball in the middle of the field and make it 14-10 going into halftime," Huber says. "So I think that was probably the bigger one. It didn't get out of bounds as I was wanting to do but it got out wide enough that the coverage team was able to get out there and bail me out on that one and keep them from getting another score on us."

With the grinding games he's played this month, and an AFC North slugfest in the offing Sunday against the Ravens, Huber is more than ready for the playoffs.

"It's just having a mindset going into those games. Whenever we play Pittsburgh or Baltimore, it's always 7-3 or 15-12, all field goals," Huber says. "You know it's going to be back and forth and back and forth and whoever wins field position typically wins the game. You've just got to have that mindset going in that you're going to have a big part of it and if it's windy or it's rainy you've just got to suck it up and deal with it. It's windy and rainy for everybody else."

Calling his home Seattle now, Brown is used to the elements. But it's only a small part of the game for him. He says Simmons's simple yet stark advice on Sunday ("trust yourself") is the best advice he's had in a long time.

"Technically I can do this in my sleep. It's the mind game. Ten percent of this is physical, 90 percent of it is mental," Brown says. "It's perspective and how you're going to approach a game-winning kick. You have to approach a game-winning kick just like it's the first kick in the game."

That advice came from Nick Lowery, the NFL's 11th-leading scorer with 1,711 points, most of them with Kansas City. When he visited the University of Nebraska while Brown was there, he gave Brown advice he can still hear.

"Whether it's a 20-yarder in the first quarter, or a 50-yarder in the last seconds, they have to be the same. You've got to kick them to win," Brown says. "I had that mentality for a long time and I think I just kind of let it go."

But the two worlds that Brown has now embraced merged Christmas Eve. When he got off the bus at PBS Sunday night with his right foot still warm from the 43-yard winner, he dressed in workout clothes and got one in. By 10 a.m. the next day he was in the air headed for his mother's home in Claremore, Okla., just outside Tulsa, and only his brother knew and he was set with the video camera.

"I sent my buddy in who picked me up at the airport through the front door to say hello and I went through the back and kind of snuck up on everybody," Brown says. "My niece noticed me first and said, 'Uncle Josh,' and then my wife, my mother, and my daughter and the boys. My kids were really excited. I haven't been there for Christmas since I was 18 because we were in bowl games in college and when I was in the league I was still playing. It was very rewarding in two different senses."

The Bengals get the sense they're walking into the playoffs on two different feet, but the footing looks to be as solid as it has ever been.

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