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ON FOOTBALL

He always gives them a leg up

PITTSBURGH -- No one is automatic, but you can see automatic from wherever Adam Vinatieri is standing.

Perhaps you could have once said the same about Lou ''The Toe" Groza -- how do you think he got the nickname in the first place? If that was why the Cleveland Browns' Hall of Fame kicker was dubbed ''The Toe," then his modern-day equivalent is Adam ''The Instep" Vinatieri (Adam ''The Side-Of-The-Foot" Vinatieri just doesn't make it, you know?).

Because of Vinatieri's uncanny reliability, which once again brought the Patriots a last-second (literally) victory yesterday at Ketchup Field over the perennially subdued Steelers, the Patriots are free to play with an untroubled flow in the final minute or two of a game that few other teams may have ever felt.

They know they do not have to drive to the 15- or 20-yard line to assure themselves a solid chance at victory when, as it was yesterday, the score is tied and the clock is running down. Just get it in the same zip code as the stadium, it seems, and Vinatieri will take care of the rest.

''Adam is the most clutch kicker in the game," quarterback Tom Brady said, after once again reminding us what clutch means himself by going 12 for 12 in the fourth quarter, including 3 for 3 for 37 yards in the final drive to set up Vinatieri's 43-yard game winner with one second on the clock. ''In those situations you call the best stuff you've got but you also know you're within field goal range if you just get to the 30-yard line."

In theory, you could say the same about a lot of professional kickers. They've all made kicks from beyond 40 yards so there is reason to believe they can do the same with a game on the line. But will they? In most cases, only Norman Vincent Peale is sure about some of Vinatieri's contemporaries around the league because none of them have done what Vinatieri has done in situations like yesterday's. None have made so many kicks at the most crucial moments, in the biggest games, made them so often that there is a belief in him among his teammates that seems to set his offense free.

''With some teams, even if you get it in range you're sweating bullets," wide receiver Troy Brown said after Brady and Vinatieri had combined to get the Patriots out of Pittsburgh with a stirring 23-20 victory on a day when many other things had gone wrong. Key players like Rodney Harrison and Matt Light went down with what appear to be serious injuries. Enough mistakes were made to sink a ship or a football team. The running game hobbled for the third straight week, with Corey Dillon averaging under 3 yards a carry for the third straight game.

Yet despite it all they found a way to win. This is old hat for the Patriots because it's a familiar story for Vinatieri, a story that now has been written 18 times. That is how many times he's delivered a game-winning field goal during his 10-year career, a string that includes two in Super Bowl play and four postseason winners.

Yesterday's kick was not quite as important as some of those others, but beating the Steelers on the road in the midst of a grueling six-game stretch is the kind of victory a team looks back on months later and realizes was far more important than it seemed at the time. A victory delivered not only by the strength of Vinatieri's leg but also by the confidence his presence instills in the offense Brady ran on the final drive.

''We've got great confidence in those situations because what our quarterback does out there is remarkable," center Dan Koppen said. ''He'll put you in situations to win the game and then we know we have a kicker who has come through for us many times. We've got a solid guy back there. So when we saw 1:20 to go, we knew it gave us a great shot [to win].

''Obviously, Adam has been in those kind of pressure situations before and made them. He's probably the greatest pressure kicker of all time."

Who knows how that is defined? The Toe might argue with the advocates of The Instep about that. Maybe Jan Stenerud, the only pure kicker ever to make the Hall of Fame (until Vinatieri is inducted), might have a point or two to discuss with Koppen on that subject. But who else? Gary Anderson? Morten Andersen? Any other kicker? One thinks not.

''Adam is the guy you want kicking in that situation," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. ''I felt once [Patrick] Pass made that catch and run [to the Steelers' 31] we were within field goal range."

That's a 48-yard kick to win a game. On grass. A kick that long, toward the open end of a hostile stadium. Not every coach would be able to so freely consider his team safely within range at that point but with Vinatieri's resume it allowed Belichick to safely run Dillon into the line once even for no gain to run the clock down further and then call a short pass that Brady completed to David Givens for six more yards to the Steelers' 25.

That left five seconds to play and the ball 43 yards from the uprights. What was Josh Miller, who holds for Vinatieri, thinking at that point? Mostly about holding the ball and then going into the locker room to pack because there wouldn't be any need for overtime.

''You know he's the right man for the job," Miller said of his kicking partner. ''It's just the mind-set he has. All the crap that can seep into your mind doesn't even enter his head. He breaks it down to A-B-C. For some guys it's the whole alphabet. It's trigonometry and calculus both. He's the consummate pro."

He's Adam ''The Instep" Vinatieri or whatever else you may want to call him.

Yesterday, as on so many other days just like it, he was what his teammates knew he was. He was what allowed them to play those final seconds more relaxed than they might have if they knew they had to turn their fate over to someone other than him.

The guy they know is money when it counts.

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