Another meaningful kick for Elam

ATLANTA - Asked if he could remember how many times he had kicked a winning field goal in overtime, Jason Elam just smiled and shook his head.

"No, I really can't," the 16-year NFL veteran from Snellville said when prodded. "But I know that every one meant an awful lot at the time."

Sunday's against Tampa Bay certainly did. Thanks to the 13-10 victory, the Atlanta Falcons (9-5) are still very much alive for a playoff berth in the NFC with two games left in the regular season.

For the record, the 34-yard field goal by Elam was the eighth overtime kick of his career and the 23rd time that he has won a game with a late kick.

The additions of Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, along with the hiring of Mike Smith as coach, are certainly the big reasons for the Falcons' turnaround this season. But the signing of Elam has certainly paid off big as well.

"(Elam's) really clutch," said John Abraham, the team's defensive star with 15 1/2 sacks. "To have him on our team is definitely a positive. We know we can count on him when we need him."

Elam is 27-for-29 on field goal attempts with the Falcons and beat Chicago as time expired with a 48-yarder on Oct. 12.

"Because of the parity in the NFL, you know that a lot of games will be decided in the last few minutes," Elam said after he came through again against Tampa Bay. "Kickers prepare for those situations. But it's always a relief when the ball goes through those uprights.

"I get nervous even in practice. You don't want to let anyone down. I was on the field like three times all day, so you definitely don't want to mess up. Your heartbeat is really fast out there.

"I'm really happy right now. This was a huge game for us and a huge win."

Elam, 38, made it to the playoffs eight times in his 15 years with Denver, winning the Super Bowl after the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Now he has a chance to go back to the postseason with his hometown team.

"Everyone knows what's at stake," Elam said of the upcoming games at Minnesota and against St. Louis at home. "We want to do something special here."

Many thought that Elam's postseason trips were a thing of the past when he signed with the Falcons, a team that went 4-12 last season. But the Brookwood graduate says he had a good feeling about the Falcons even early on and the positive vibes have continued to grow.

"I really didn't think the Falcons were as bad as their record last season," Elam said. "Everything just went wrong, with the Michael Vick situation and then Bobby Petrino leaving. And when you add a player like Michael Turner and have a rookie like Matt Ryan, you know the potential for good things is there.

"I think we have really bonded as a team and gotten more and more confident in what we can do. I think the Chicago game was a big turning point. We stopped hoping we'd win and started expecting to win.

"Last year doesn't matter. There are so many new guys on this team. We changed our whole mindset. And that win against Chicago pushed us over the top.

"We had some things go bad (against Tampa Bay). But we're really not a team that gets down. We have a good group of guys here who have come together and it takes that to make a good push in December and hopefully into January."

Elam's winning kick against the Bucs meant another NFL football for his four children to play with.

After the boot sailed through, Elam was mobbed by happy teammates. Soon afterwards, he was handed the football. The kicker planned to take it home, but not to put in a trophy case.

"I'll give it to my kids," said Elam, who is already fourth in Falcons history with his 116 points this season. "It means a lot to me, but I think it means more to them. They'll have a lot of fun with it."

Asked how many footballs he's given to his children through the years, Elam broke into his biggest smile yet and then said, "A lot."

The Falcons, of course, hope that there are more presents to come - maybe even one from a playoff game victory.