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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Upright record for Mr. Clutch

FOXBOROUGH -- Beating the bad teams, losing to the good ones, the Patriots continued their lurch toward an inevitable playoff date with a 16-3 victory over the ghastly New York Jets yesterday. On a cold, sometimes-snowy evening, the Krafts-men took care of business against a team clearly on a mission to land Southern California's Reggie Bush.

At times it sounded as if the Patriots and Jets were playing the game at Harvard Widener Library as 68,756 shivered and snoozed through 60 minutes of smashmouth and, occasionally, slapstick football. Tom Brady (27 of 37, no picks) recovered as we knew he would, Corey Dillon carried the football for the first time in four weeks, and, oh yes, Adam Vinatieri became the Patriots' all-time leading scorer.

There were a few other sideshows. There was a much-deserved tribute to Ted Johnson at halftime, and throughout the game we were assaulted with an annoying cross promotion of a CBS women's lingerie show. Fans flung a few snowballs late in the game and New England's big lead in the fourth got things started early on the exodus toward Route 1.

But the game ball belonged to Vinatieri, the quiet guy with the golden toe, the great-great-grandson of General Custer's bandmaster, the pride of South Dakota State.

''Looking back at 10 years here, it's been a lot of fun," said the humble kicker. ''A lot of neat games."

Yes, he really said ''neat."

Vinatieri first came on the scene in 1996 when Bill Parcells kept him over 18-year veteran Matt Bahr (no easy choice for the sentimental Tuna). Yesterday, in December of his 10th season, after three Super Bowl championships that included some of the greatest clutch kicks in the history of the sport, Vinatieri leapfrogged Gino Cappelletti in the Patriots' record book, kicking a 34-yard field goal with two seconds left in the first half. At the end of the day, Vinatieri had 1,134 points to Gino's 1,130.

Patriots owner Bob Kraft presided over a special postgame ceremony in which Cappelletti gave the game ball to Vinatieri.

Looking ever fit and trim, ready to catch a TD pass from Babe Parilli, Gino said, ''I'm glad it's finally over. Adam Vinatieri has proven time and again his prowess. I had my time, Adam is having his time."

Brady added, ''The two guys who are what Patriot football is all about are Gino Cappelletti and Adam Vinatieri."

Indeed. Back in the day when men were men, and facemasks were optional, Gino ran, and caught, and kicked his way to 1,130 points. He was an original Patriot, playing for a team coached by Lou Saban, owned by Billy Sullivan, and watched by a handful of fans of the upstart American Football League. Gino kicked field goals at Boston University and Harvard. He caught touchdown passes at Fenway Park. He played for Clive Rush. And now he's a Patriot broadcaster with a quarter of a century behind the mike.

Gino applauded madly when Vinatieri's second field goal of the day bounced Cappelletti from the top of the Patriots' scoring leaderboard. And he found Vinatieri in the locker room immediately after the game and kiddingly said, ''What took you so long?" That's just the kind of guy Gino is. Records are made to be broken and Vinatieri is a worthy successor. Gino wouldn't make for a very good 1972 Miami Dolphin.

Assessing Vinatieri's place in New England sports history is another matter. Despite all the success, Vinatieri is very much a work in progress. The 32-year-old kicker could be here for another 10 seasons, but he's already got a leg up on some of your favorite Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics. He's not quite up there with the Mount Rushmore visages -- Russell, Williams, Bird, Orr, and Brady -- but he's delivered more clutch plays than anyone else who ever played for a New England team.

One more time we must go back to the night of Jan. 19, 2002, the last game played in Foxboro Stadium. After the infamous tuck rule call, it was Vinatieri who kicked a 45-yard field goal with 32 seconds left to tie the game. New England won in overtime -- on a Vinatieri kick -- and went on to win the first of three Super Bowls in four seasons.

By most accounts, that tying kick is the greatest clutch kick in NFL history. It was made on a snow-covered field and struck through heavy snow and driving wind. The football was hard as a bowling ball, and just about as heavy. Vinatieri went on to kick a couple of buzzer-beating field goals to win Super Bowls, but nothing will match the Snow Bowl kick. They even made a snow-globe out of it -- Currier & Ives meets ''Any Given Sunday".

''The greatest kick I've even seen or known about," said Cappelletti.

''The best kick I've ever seen because of the conditions and what was at stake," deadpanned coach Bill Belichick.

''It's the one I'm most proud of," admitted Vinatieri. ''It's the most difficult I've had to make."

In local lore, it's right there with ''Havlicek stole the ball," and Dave Roberts's steal and Curt Schilling's sock and Bobby Orr's dive through the air. But it was more difficult than any of those plays. And it led to a championship. Maybe three. Try to play the ''It's a Wonderful Life" game and imagine what would have happened around here if Vinatieri had missed that kick. There would have been no first Super Bowl win in New Orleans. Would there have been two more? Hard to say.

What is easy to say is that New England sports fans are blessed to have a kicker who is equal parts clutch and tough. He is not just a placekicker, remember. Vinatieri is a football player who does all the stuff the other guys do. He's thrown a touchdown pass and he's caught Herschel Walker from behind.

''He could have played in the days of the 33-man rosters," said Gino.

And so the torch is passed and the game ball is handed from Cappelletti to Vinatieri. Vinatieri's career, like his character, can be summed up by the same words that follow the description of almost every one of his kicks.

It's good.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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