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Shoe is on the other foot

Vinatieri might be the missing piece for title-starved Colts

INDIANAPOLIS -- This is what everyone in both cities has been either hoping or fearing would happen for 10 months. That the Colts and Patriots would meet Sunday with a Super Bowl trip on the line and that Adam Vinatieri might decide their fates with his gilded instep. The man himself concedes the probability occurred to him.

"You never know what to expect, but I assumed the Patriots were going to be a good team this year, same as I assumed that the Colts were going to be a good team," Vinatieri said this week, as he prepared to do battle with his star-spangled former teammates in Sunday's AFC Championship game in the RCA Dome. "So, if you keep winning, inevitably your crossroads will meet."

This will be the third time they've met in the postseason in the last four years and the first time the Colts haven't had to dread the sight of Vinatieri trotting onto the field to jam 3 more points down their gullets, as he did a record-tying five times in New England's 24-14 victory in 2004 and twice more in the 20-3 decision in 2005.

"When he goes out there, you always feel like he's not going to miss," says Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who watched Vinatieri coolly score all 15 points in last Saturday's victory at Baltimore. "That was our whole goal when he was at New England, that you couldn't let him get close enough in a situation where a field goal was going to do it. I don't remember him missing against me in four or five years. It's really the same feeling."

The difference is that this time, Vinatieri's foot literally is inside the other shoe. It's a reverse image, an odd through-the-looking-glass sensation. Everything the Colts once hated about the mild-mannered man from Yankton, S.D. -- primarily his damnable consistency -- is now everything they love.

"Adam is amazing when it comes down to clutch," says Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. "I don't remember the last time he missed a kick in the playoffs, period. Against us, against other teams. We are blessed to have him."

Especially in January, where every dream for 35 years has come to grief for the Colts. It was a missed field goal -- Mike Vanderjagt's almost comical botch from 46 yards in last year's playoff opener -- that left them with hooves up at home and let the Steelers rumble on to a championship ring.

Vanderjagt might have been the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (86.5 percent), but his postseason wobblies made him expendable. Once the Colts heard Vinatieri was looking for a change of address, and that his agent wasn't merely trying to up the ante for the Patriots, the Colts quickly locked him in for five years at $12 million, with a $3.5 million signing bonus.

Switching gears
It was a pure business decision on both sides. Indianapolis had grown weary with Vanderjagt, who was imperfect when he most needed to be otherwise, wouldn't kick off, and was an annoyance in the locker room. Vinatieri, who'd concluded that New England wasn't going to pay him what he could make elsewhere, got a long-term deal with a playoff perennial, a roof over his head at least eight Sundays a year, and a team that rolled out the blue carpet for him. "Adam had his good times with New England," says defensive tackle Dan Klecko, who played three seasons with Vinatieri there. "It was just time for him to move on."

The Colts, who'd never dreamed he'd move into their carpeted building, quickly realized Vinatieri came as advertised. All they needed to see was three swings of his leg in the exhibition debut at St. Louis.

"He started the game with an onside kick that was perfect," says Dungy. "He made a 53-yard field goal that he kicked up in the net and then he kicked off 7 yards deep in the end zone. After those three kicks our guys said, 'Everything we've read is correct.' "

Vinatieri booted four in the regular-season opener in the Meadowlands, which his mates won by 5 points over the Giants. He had three against Houston, three more against Washington. But it was at Denver, in the Colts' first certifiably big game, that Vinatieri got to show what sets him apart from every other kicker in the game, drilling a 37-yard winner (the 19th of his career) with two seconds to go for a 34-31 victory.

When the regular season was done, Vinatieri had connected on 25 of 28, the third-best mark of his career. In the Colts' two playoff victories, he's 8 for 8. "We're calling him Mr. Perfect so far," says defensive back Nick Harper. "And we're going to keep it that way until he proves otherwise."

Last week in the rain at Baltimore, Vinatieri was good from 23, 42, 51, 48, and 35 yards. For a team that has come to rely on quarterback Peyton Manning throwing for 6 points, it's been a revelation that they can win by scoring 3 at a time.

"The lesson we learned last Saturday was, don't discount field goals," said Dungy, after the Colts won a playoff game for the first time in their history without crossing the goal line. "You always want to score touchdowns, but you can win a game with two field goals just as easily as you can with one touchdown."

Having Vinatieri at hand has changed how they calculate in Indianapolis, where the red zone now extends to the 35-yard line. "Are we close enough?" says Dungy. "And if we are, you feel like it's going to be good."

Last weekend the Colts, up, 6-3, with the first half ticking down, were facing fourth and 6 at the Baltimore 34. "You know this is going to be about 52 yards," Dungy advised his kicker. "Are we in good shape, or should we punt it?" "No, we got it," said Vinatieri, who bounced the ball off and over the crossbar.

In Adam They Trust. Late in the game, when Indianapolis was trying to starve the Ravens by killing the clock with a seven-minute drive, the Colts knew Vinatieri would deliver the killing blow, which he did from 35 yards with 23 seconds left. "Money," his coach murmured on the sideline, as a nationwide audience read his lips.

"That was the first thing that came to my mind," says Dungy. "Adam has been money all year. As I saw it leave his foot, it was right down the middle and I just said, 'He's money.' "

Despite Vanderjagt's amazing numbers, his employers never felt that way about him when the stakes got high. "I think they felt they needed it closer, another play or two," says CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, who calls Vinatieri "the best money kicker of all time." "Those are the little things that don't show on the stat sheets. Vinatieri gives them an unbelievable boost of confidence, knowing that they only have to get within 50 yards to kick the game-winning field goal. That's a luxury they haven't had in past years."

A super man
It was a luxury worth paying for, but it also comes with assumptions based on the man's ring-filled résumé. If the ball is properly snapped and spotted anywhere within Patriot Missile range, Vinatieri will make it. The motto on the locker room wall reads: EXPECTATIONS. EXECUTION.

That's nothing new for Vinatieri, who worked under the same philosophy during his decade in Foxborough. "I don't think that there are any higher expectations than what I put on myself," he says. "You prepare every week to go out there and succeed and try to do the best you can. I expect to go out there and play well. That's what you prepare for. Sometimes they don't always go through, but you definitely want to do everything you can to help your team be successful."

Nothing that happens here Sunday evening will compare to the squeeze of having the outcomes of two Super Bowls riding on his foot. "He's been in the most pressurized situations ever and he came through," says Klecko. Three times, Vinatieri has been to a place these Colts have only dreamed of, which makes him both a mystical figure and a natural leader in this locker room.

"He's a guy you really want to be around," says tight end Ben Utecht. "Just because he's a kicker doesn't mean that he can't be a leader. He has been. He's very verbal and very encouraging to all of the players."

Vanderjagt might have been verbal, but he wasn't always encouraging, more Me than We, and quick to call out his colleagues, including Manning. That's never been Vinatieri's style. "It doesn't matter if it's myself or Peyton or anybody else on the field, games aren't usually won on one play," he says. "It's a lot of plays. It's 60 minutes of football . . . It's truly a team victory when you win and it's a team loss when you don't win."

Vinatieri always has been a We guy. The difference now is that We are the Colts and They are the Patriots. That was made clear to everybody when Vinatieri was booed by his former faithful when he returned to Foxborough as a visitor in November. "It felt awkward early on when we first played them," Patriots defensive lineman Ty Warren said this week. "But it's football."

Not that Vinatieri doesn't keep tabs on his old team (he watched them beat the Chargers last weekend and admires successor Steven Gostkowski's work) and check in with his former mates. "I've kept in touch with Ken Walter and Josh Miller and Lonie Paxton, the guys I hung around a lot," he says. "We'll be friends long after this week, but this week, it's not about being friends. It's about winning football games."

The Colts already have won two more than they did last January. Now, they need to win the one they haven't been able to win since the 1970 season. "It's kind of a rite of passage," Vinatieri says. "You don't get the honor of playing in the Super Bowl unless you beat everybody leading up to that."

Having to beat the Patriots to get there is a novelty. "It'll be interesting to see how many times I'm on the field," he muses. "You never know. You prepare like you're going to be out there a bunch, and if that happens, that's great. And if not, you stand on the sidelines and you cheer a bunch."

Vinatieri wouldn't mind being a paid spectator at Peyton's Place if it means that Manning is having himself a monster day. "I just want to win the game," he says. "It doesn't matter how we do it. If we can get that done, that's the only thing that matters."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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