Adam Vinatieri has never missed in the RCA Dome.
The Patriots know that all too well, as their former kicker provided more than his fair share of scores for them inside at Indy. And you just know that has to be a source of concern for them this week, a potentially devastating regional nightmare if he were to be the one to vault the Colts into the Super Bowl with a game-winning kick.
On the flipside, Colts fans have to finally be feeling pretty confident in this aspect of the game, particularly after last year's blunder off the foot of Mike Vanderjagt in Indy's divisional playoff loss to the Steelers. If it comes down to a Vinatieri kick this time around, perhaps the only way Indy fans don't go home happy is if Vinatieri is pulling a setup with Belichick, simultaneously shanking the kick wide right and tearing off his Colts jersey to reveal Pat Patriot on his chest, the greatest undercover gag ever.
Patriots fans would surely rather consider that a likelihood than the alternative. Their Super Bowl hero beating them? With the Colts? For the Super Bowl? Who's going to pay?
For all the success the Patriots have had this season in spite of losing Deion Branch, David Givens, and Vinatieri, none of it will matter if their former kicker is the one to beat them on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. It would be like David Ortiz jumping ship to the Yankees and beating the Red Sox in a seven-game series. The vultures will be wanting answers, and we know how easy those are to get from Route One.
Newsday's Johnette Howard wonders if Belichick's armor isn't already starting to show a few chinks, even before we know what Sunday's outcome might be.
If sports history suggests anything, it's that dynasties often start crumbling first from within. Though the Patriots show no signs of doing that yet, a few in-house fissures have started to show in the past year. Whether the cracks will ever become anything bigger is just conjecture. But this already is certain: Belichick doesn't just put off opposing players such as LaDainian Tomlinson, who called him out by name for two days this week. Many of Belichick's own stars feel disrespected or frustrated by him, too…
Running back Kevin Faulk could've been speaking for all the Patriots a couple of weeks ago when he stood at his locker talking in general terms about how "players make systems. Systems don't make players."
That's what players believe, anyway. Once a coach starts getting credit for a team's success far more than the players who sweat and bleed and break bones to make it happen, he can wake up one day and find he has a problem. Don Shula never seemed to reach the tipping point. Bill Walsh didn't seem to, either. But neither of them cultivated the emotional remove that Belichick coldly does.
Howard uses Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson as examples of stars who ran their coaches out of town despite grand success, which might be inevitable in many cases. How tired must some of these players be about hearing about Belichick's genius, when they're the ones fighting in the trenches? Will they revolt in anguish because they’re considered products of the system rather than damn good football players? Certainly, there may be a breaking point down the line. Whether it's a potential dagger off the boot of Vinatieri, who knows. And as much as people want to poo-bah those Giants whispers, they don't appear to be going away.
Just how devastating would a Vinatieri game-winner be this time? Monday could come and be the first day of a two-week preparation for the Super Bowl. Or it could come and mean the beginning of something else entirely, something we haven't seen for years in these parts. The Patriots organization in disarray, all because of the Super Bowl hero they let get away.
MSNBC's Michael Ventre is feeling it. He's praying to be spared another Patriots title run:
“But that cold efficiency does not make for compelling viewing. The Patriots are like ‘According to Jim’ — yes, they’re successful, but who cares? The Pats don’t have widespread appeal, like the Dallas Cowboys or Los Angeles Lakers or New York Yankees. Their core audience consists of people in and around Boston who need a fifth choice on their anger checklist behind the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and the Big Dig. Of those, the Patriots have the best track record lately by far, but that is offset by the fact that an NFL team only plays once a week. Sports fans in New England are the happiest when they’re miserable on a daily basis.”
That'll go over well.
But perhaps the more concerning evil eye comes from that of the Patriots’ NFL colleagues, who oftentimes don't like the team's practices and on-field demeanor, which has been dissected enough over the past few days.
"They definitely [ticked] us off in that game with that last touchdown," Titans receiver Drew Bennett told the Nashville City Paper. "I didn't see exactly what happened on the field in the Chargers game, because it was away from the cameras, but with what happened in our game, I can see why the Chargers might be upset.
"You have to have respect for each other as professionals, and they're a great team, but I'm sure they'll remember Bobby's block on Harrison that they considered low, and we'll remember that touchdown the next time we meet."
Seems that's a common party line these days.
Polian joins Peyton Manning in pleading with Colts fans not to re-sell their tickets to Patriots fans on the Colts.com "Polian Corner."
It sounds a little out there, but hey, might be as good a reason as any. Or that the Colts were facing the two weakest offenses in the playoffs. I dunno. Tough call.
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders has a differing opinion and says that history points to a New England-Chicago Super Bowl.
Just because something has never been done before doesn't mean that it can't be done in the future. But no team has ever made it to the Super Bowl with a defense this bad, much less won the thing…But as great as the Colts' defense has been over the last two weeks, I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation as to why those two games are a better indicator than the 16 games that came before.
Lonnie White of the Los Angeles Times also suggests that the Colts' defense is a mirage of their opponents in the playoffs.
Against offense-challenged Kansas City and Baltimore, the Colts did not have problems dictating down and distance situations. Indianapolis scored first and then had easy times shutting down the Chiefs and Ravens' ground attacks because they lacked formidable passing games.
That will be much more difficult against Tom Brady and the Patriots, pursuing their fourth Super Bowl title in six years.
Although New England has quality running backs in Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, do not be surprised if Brady attacks the Colts out of a spread shotgun formation early in the game.
That's how the Steelers took a lead en route to beating Indianapolis in last year's playoffs, and Brady has excelled directing similar schemes in previous postseason games - including much of the fourth quarter of New England's victory over San Diego last week.
"The key to the Colts' playoff success, you see, isn't much different than that of the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears or the New England Patriots. It comes down to chemistry and confidence," he writes. "When you look at what's happened in the postseason this decade, it's impossible to overlook that most of the Super Bowl champions had the same formula working for them. Most weren't heavy favorites. Rather, they were the teams that hit their stride at just the right time, usually after overcoming some prolonged stretch of adversity that hardened them. Like this year's NFC and AFC finalists, those Super Bowl winners had a level of mental toughness that couldn't be measured on paper."
"Patriots left tackle Matt Light did a nice job against Shawne Merriman, helping to hold him without a sack. Now he gets Dwight Freeney, arguably the best speed rusher in the NFL. Freeney plays with his hand down, which is different from Merriman. That will make for a different type of challenge for Light. Winning this battle could decide the game. If Light holds him without a sack, the Patriots might take it. If Freeney can get a sack-fumble, it could change the outcome."