(Eds: With AP Photos.) By ARNIE STAPLETON AP Pro Football Writer Tim Tebow might be engineering all these comebacks for the Denver Broncos. It's Matt Prater who's sealing them.
Prater always considered himself an icy-veined kicker whose heartbeat stayed steady whatever pressure he was under. This year, he's getting the chance to prove it - time and again.
Prater's 51-yarder in overtime that sent the Broncos past the stunned Chicago Bears 13-10 on Sunday was his third straight walk-off field goal. It followed his 59-yarder that tied it with 3 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
He and former Indianapolis Colt Mike Vanderjagt are the only kickers in NFL history to have a 50-yard-plus kick to tie a game and then one to win it in overtime. Vanderjagt did it on Nov. 24, 2002, against Denver.
''Those were fabulous clutch kicks, both of them,'' coach John Fox said of Prater on Monday. ''He's done it lately. He was in a little bit of a slump about a month ago and he worked himself out of it. We have great confidence in him really from any range.''
But especially from 50-plus, where he's 12 of 16 in his career.
Prater's teammates knew they had this one in the bag when Prater jogged onto the field in overtime - they'd watched him boom 70-yarders during warm-ups, so 51 yards was a chip shot.
''That's amazing,'' linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. ''Prater does a lot of good things for us. And I believe in him and I think that he's finally believing in himself.''
Prater's right toe is a big reason the Broncos are 7-1 since Tebow took over at quarterback, transforming the Broncos from a 1-4 eyesore into the AFC West leaders at 8-5 as they chase their first playoff berth since 2005.
Prater has kicked the game-winning field goal on the last play of regulation or in overtime four times during this stretch. That's one shy of the NFL single-season record set by his predecessor, Jason Elam, in 2007.
''This has been probably the most fun I've ever had playing football,'' Prater said. ''Where in the past you kind of feel like you're just going to your job, now it's back to high school football, where you're playing with all your friends and you've got their backs and all that stuff.''
While the Broncos players and coaches are big believers in Tebow's ability to pull out wins in crunch time with six second-half comebacks in the last two months, they feel equally confident about Prater under pressure.
When they reached the Bears' 40-yard line in overtime, they played it safe, setting him up for a 51-yarder, which is right in his comfort zone. He's nailed 3 of 4 from that distance this year.
''There's no doubt his leg strength is a weapon, in particular here at home with the altitude,'' Fox said.
Prater owns the best field goal percentage (.750) from 50-plus yards in NFL history among kickers with at least 10 attempts. But this year, he's becoming known for more than just his howitzer of a right leg, which has produced an NFL-high 110 touchbacks since 2008.
In his first four NFL seasons, he had one game-winning field goal, a 41-yarder to beat New England 20-17 in 2009.
Now, they're coming along just about every week as he's sealed wins over Miami, San Diego, Minnesota and Chicago. All were in overtime except a win over the Vikings as time expired.
''This year I've had more than I have my whole career,'' Prater said. ''I'm definitely going to be bald at the end of the season. Bald or gray, one of the two.''
Prater doesn't mind that Tebow seems to get all the credit for the Broncos' cardiac comebacks, either.
''I'm just doing my part,'' he said. ''This is a team effort and we all celebrate together. It's a team win.''
Prater has made a strong comeback of his own, from a pulled groin that cost him the final couple of games last season and a blunder in training camp that he at first feared could cost him his job.
Shortly after signing a one-year, $1.8 million deal as a restricted free agent, the fifth-year pro from Central Florida was charged with drunken driving and fleeing the scene of an accident on Aug. 2 in Greenwood Village, near the team's training complex. After his arrest he was chastised by the Broncos, who said they were disappointed in his poor judgment.
Prater put aside the misstep to beat out Steve Hauschka in training camp.
Prater always enters the new season with a goal in mind. In 2009, it was to make 85 percent of his field goals, and he hit 30 of 35 (85.7 percent). Last year, it was to make 90 percent, and he came up just short, converting 16 of 18 attempts (88.9 percent).
This year, he said he wanted to make the Pro Bowl and all of his kicks.
That second part went by the wayside when the wind blew a long field goal off-target in the opener against Oakland. But with all these game-winners piling up, he might still be on track for a trip to Hawaii in January, even though he's missed 6 of 23 attempts.
''He's been great,'' Fox said. ''He's been clutch.''
While Prater is thriving under pressure, he'd like to have some kicks that aren't of the do-or-die variety.
''I would like to kick some extra points,'' he said with a smile.
Notes: Fox said SS Brian Dawkins (neck) should be OK, but CB Andre' Goodman will have to undergo concussion tests this week before being cleared to practice. Both got hurt Sunday.
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton can be reached at astapleton(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/arniestapleton