FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Stephen Gostkowski insists nothing has changed, that he’s doing nothing different this year.

Yet it has been obvious to anyone watching the thrill ride that is the New England Patriots this year that he is having his finest season.

Now in his eighth season as the placekicker for the Patriots, Gostkowski has been as close to a sure thing as there has been on the roster.

Not only has he been nearly perfect, making 30 of 32 field goal attempts, but he’s been one of the Patriots’ most clutch players.

Fourteen of his field goals have come in either the fourth quarter or overtime, three producing game-winners (Buffalo, Denver, Houston) and one sending a game into overtime (New York Jets).

He leads the NFL in both scoring (125 points) and field goals (30) and is perfect on 35 PAT kicks. In fact, he has converted his last 351 PATs. (The only PAT he has ever missed came back in his rookie year, 2006, when he had one blocked in a Dec. 31 game at Tennessee. He hasn’t missed since.)

To top it all off, he put down the perfect onside kick last Sunday, a ball that was recovered by New England’s Kyle Arrington and that led to the game-winning touchdown.

Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ stellar special teams player, said Gostkowski’s season is one you dream about.

“I don’t even think about whether or not he’s going to make field goals or not at this point,” said Slater on Wednesday. “We just figure that’s money in the bank because he’s just been so reliable this year, so consistent, as he has the whole time I’ve been here. Steve is such a good teammate that you really enjoy playing with a guy like that.

“He cares about the team’s success. He works so hard at his craft, he takes it so seriously. I’m happy for him. He deserves to have the success he’s had this year because he’s worked so hard for it.”

The 29-year-old Gostkowski, a fourth-round pick by the Patriots in the 2006 draft, hesitates to call this his best season because, he said, “The year’s not over yet.”

He said the difference between this year and any other is that he’s getting more opportunities.

“You can’t help that for four or five years we were beating teams by 25 points,” he said. “That’s out of my control. I just go out there when they send me out there.”

The Patriots obviously aren’t concerned about sending him out at any time. He’s kicked five field goals of 50 yards or more this year – two 53-yarders in the fourth quarter at Houston, the first time tying the game, the second winning it; he kicked a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter against Cleveland to start the Patriots’ comeback.

“He’s had a couple of pretty clutch weeks,” said Coach Bill Belichick.

“I think it would be hard to be more clutch than that.”

Belichick stressed that the onside kick against the Browns last Sunday, called a middle bunt, was executed nearly perfectly. Gostkowski nubbed the ball toward the Browns and slid next to it. As he was about to recover it, a Cleveland player hit him as well as the ball, making it a free ball for Arrington to recover.

“Near flawless execution and it started with the kick,” said Slater. “Steve came out and executed the kick in a way you can only dream of.”

Once it was obvious the Patriots had recovered the ball, Gostkowski jumped up and pumped his right fist into the air, as excited as if he had just kicked a game-winning field goal.

“It was one of the highest points (of his career) because it was out of the ordinary,” he said. “I’ve kicked hundreds of field goals so it was something that was special.”

His 50-yard field goal against the Browns was the 200th of his career, trailing only Adam Vinatieri (262) for the franchise lead.

Not bad for a guy whose career dream was to play in a different professional sport.

“Baseball was always my No.1 priority,” he said. “I always thought I’d make it to the major leagues and it ended up being football.”

He was a three-sport standout at Madison (Miss.) Central High, earning all-state recognition in football, baseball and soccer.

Baseball – and pitching – was his sport. He went 16-2 in his high school career and earned a scholarship to pitch at Memphis.

But football had a way of clinging to him. When he was a freshman in high school, he said he “tried out for every position on the team.”

Then one day he kicked a 55-yard field goal and the coach put him on the varsity. “And I said, OK,” said Gostkowski.

At Memphis, he continued to kick for the football team as well as pitch.

The two, he said, are actually very similar.

“I mean, when you’re kicking all eyes are on you,” he said. “When you’re pitching all eyes are on you, especially if you come in a tight spot where you need to throw a strike, on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded. You can equate that to a kick in the fourth quarter where you have to have it, where you just got to do your job and not let the circumstances or the emotions of the game or whatever’s going around you affect how you’re going to perform.”

He said he almost gave up on kicking a couple of times but stuck with it.

“It was never my No.1 priority,” he said. “I got to college and played both baseball and football, and baseball was still my No. 1 priority. I just ended up doing a lot better in football probably because I didn’t put much stock in it. I was lucky.”

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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