LOS ANGELES — Of course the Cincinnati Bengals heard the jokes and all the critics who questioned the decision to draft a kicker — a kicker! — in the fifth round last year. So when 22-year-old Evan McPherson drilled a 52-yard game-winner at the end of regulation in Cincinnati’s divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, the team’s official Twitter account reminded everyone of those jokes.

“THAT’S WHY YOU DRAFT A KICKER!” it tweeted.

No one seems to be questioning the Bengals’ pick now.

“That was something that was preplanned, that if we get the opportunity in the fifth round, that we would consider him there,” said Duke Tobin, the Bengals’ director of player personnel. “We didn’t want to wait any longer than that.”

Why?

“Composure. Leg strength. Consistency,” Tobin said. “The ability to hit from long range. His physical traits as well as his mental makeup. The workouts that [special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons] did with him were all really good, and we had been trying to solve that position long-term for a while, and we thought that was a good way to go.”

As the Bengals have embarked on a storied run to the Super Bowl, their young kicker has become a star in his own right, hitting five game-winners and 12 field goals from 50-plus yards in the regular season and postseason combined. In just the playoffs, he has gone 12 for 12 on field goals and is three from topping Adam Vinatieri’s record of 14 in a postseason.

“That’s super impressive no matter if it’s your 15th year in the league,” Vinatieri said on “The Pat McAfee Show” recently. “But doing that as a rookie, that’s awesome.”

McPherson has garnered a following for both his kicks and his swagger, a rare confidence both his coaches and teammates have praised. Yet he has become the face of a leaguewide trend: NFL kickers are operating at another level nowadays, not only making kicks at a high rate but making them from farther away.

“You want that if you can get it,” Tobin said. “It’s like any position: If he’s a little faster, that’s better. If he’s a little bigger, that’s better. If he’s a little stronger, that’s better. With a kicker, longer is better. And that helps in the final analysis and the grade you put on him and where you take him in the draft.”

Since 2000, the leaguewide field goal accuracy has been above 85 percent in a season only twice — in 2013 (86.5) and 2021 (85.1).

In that span, this season also ranks second in average attempted distance on field goals (38.6 yards, behind 38.9 yards in 2020) and third in field goal accuracy from 50 or more yards (65.9 percent).

So far this postseason, teams have attempted field goals from an average of 39.9 yards (the third longest since 2000) and made 89.1 percent of them (the fifth-highest rate). And after a lopsided opening week of the playoffs, five games have since been decided on field goals. McPherson has accounted for two of those — first against the Titans, and then in the AFC championship game, when he hit a 31-yarder in overtime to beat the Kansas City Chiefs.

His counterpart Sunday, Los Angeles Rams kicker Matt Gay, finished the regular season with the second-best field goal accuracy (94.1 percent) and has made two game-winners in the playoffs, hitting from 30 yards in the divisional round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and again in the NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Come Sunday, it’s plausible the game comes down to the final two minutes again, putting the focus once more on the kickers.

For McPherson, it could be the culmination of a goal he set ahead of the postseason, when he saw a photo of a football on McAfee’s desk that had Vinatieri’s postseason record on it.

“I just thought that’d be a pretty cool record to break,” McPherson said. “Just to be here now, I couldn’t have imagined having four field goals in every game. I know that our team, if we can’t score, we’ll definitely kick a field goal from anywhere on the field, so I knew I’d get attempts. I just couldn’t have imagined having four attempts in each game.”

But Tobin and his staff clearly understood the value of a trusted kicker. The fifth-round selection that was widely panned could be the difference-maker Sunday.

“Three points matter,” Tobin said. “In today’s NFL, three points matter a lot.”