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JACKIE MACMULLAN

He toughs it out and delivers finishing kick

FOXBOROUGH -- He used to be as reliable as the morning paper on your doorstep. If Adam Vinatieri was in charge of delivering your Globe, he would routinely fold it into a triangle, boot it right up the middle of your walkway, then plunk it precisely in the middle of your front stoop, exactly where you like it.

He hit long kicks, short kicks, big kicks, routine kicks. He was a Super Bowl hero, a furniture pitchman, and one of those rare athletes who completely understood where he stood in the football pecking order.

But something went awry this season. The most dependable player on the team suddenly developed a glitch. Some days, the morning paper ended up on the side of the lawn. Other days, it wound up in the bushes. Some days, the paper never even made it into the yard.

Adam Vinatieri was missing field goals, and he was missing them routinely. No one expected him to remain perfect forever, but this uncharacteristic inconsistency led to recent speculation that maybe, just maybe, the kicker was hurt.

Last night, in the wake of yet another heroic clutch field goal by Vinatieri to keep the Patriots' season steamrolling along, the truth finally came out: Vinatieri has been struggling with back problems for weeks. Safety Rodney Harrison confirmed that when he credited Vinatieri for his toughness, adding, "The guy has been hurt for weeks." Other Patriots also confirmed he has been ailing for some time. Asked about it late last night, Vinatieri said, "I don't really have any comment about that."

Vinatieri has been around long enough to know that when it comes to injury talk, coach Bill Belichick prefers his players keep their mouths shut.

Vinatieri is a company man, all the way, yet the policy has left the popular kicker open to all sorts of criticism during what has been the toughest season of his pro career.

"I can't worry too much about what other people say," he explained. "The guys and the coaches in this locker room know what's going on."

As he took the field for last night's playoff game against Tennessee, Vinatieri had missed 9 of 18 field goals from 30 yards and beyond. Aside from his unspecific back woes, he has also had to contend with three long snappers, and a field that had deteriorated so rapidly the league ordered the Patriots to re-sod Gillette Stadium's playoff carpet. Vinatieri gleefully proclaimed last week, "It will be nice not to kick on a crappy field."

In spite of it all, last night, with the game on the line, and his suddenly spotty reputation hanging in the balance, Vinatieri reverted to his old, dependable, memorable self. With 4:06 left in the game, and the score frozen at 14-14, Vinatieri nailed a 46-yard field goal that cleared the uprights with just about a yard to spare.

"When I hit it, I didn't think it would be that close," Vinatieri said. "I thought I had it. I even celebrated, a bit prematurely I realized, because nobody else was. It made it with about a yard or two to spare."

It would be impossible to impress upon those of us who have never kicked a football for a living what it's like when the temperatures drop below zero, and that football becomes a virtual ice ball. Everyone knows the ball no longer travels with the same oomph, which might make you think a 46-yarder could be out of reach.

Not for this kicker.

"We felt in this weather I could kick it about 46 or 48 yards," Vinatieri explained. "We wanted to keep it in that range. When I actually kicked the ball, I didn't feel it too much. My foot was pretty numb at that point."

And how did his foot feel after it connected with a football that might as well have been stored in a meat locker for a long weekend?

"It felt pretty solid," he said. "Kind of like kicking a brick."

Veteran receiver Troy Brown, who knows a thing or two about clutch plays of his own (like the fourth-down grab he made on the right sideline to keep the drive alive that would eventually result in Vinatieri's winning kick), said in spite of Vinatieri's recent struggles, he couldn't remember the last time he missed a big, game-deciding kick.

"I think you'd have to go back to sometime during the 2000 season," Brown said. "He's money, man. That's why he makes all that money. That's why he's selling furniture on TV, and Fords, and all that other stuff."

Late in the first quarter, when Vinatieri had a chance to put his team up, 10-7, he missed a 44-yard field goal wide left. That kick, he said, was not on his mind as he took the field with 4:06 left. Nor, he said, were any of the other miscues creeping into his psyche as he lined up the latest big kick of his illustrious career.

"I was kind of thinking, `I better kick this thing, because there's only about four minutes left and we might not get another chance at it,' " Vinatieri said. "I was thinking, `We better make the best of this opportunity.' "

Almost exactly two years ago, Vinatieri lined up in the now historic Snow Bowl and kicked an overtime winner to beat the Oakland Raiders, 16-13, and send his team to the AFC Championship game. Asked again and again last night to compare the two, the kicker said in terms of degree of difficulty, the snow kick still won out, because the field was so slick with the white stuff.

When Vinatieri nailed the eventual game-winner last night, he did not celebrate as if he had won the Super Bowl. There were no raucous celebrations when he did his job. Four minutes is a lifetime in pro football, and New England knew Vinatieri's remarkable kick, which becomes even more admirable when you realize he's fighting through an injury, was not necessarily the last word.

The fact that it turned out to be just that was poetic justice. The paper is back on the doorstep. The kicker is back in form. When it mattered most, No. 4 in your program did what he alway used to do: He delivered.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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