Time has, in many ways, changed the complexion of the Indianapolis Colts’ storied rivalry with the New England Patriots.
They haven’t met in the playoffs since the 2007 AFC Championship Game. And all but a handful of the central figures from that era are gone, with Tom Brady, Robert Mathis and Bill Belichick being notable exceptions.
The other, of course, is Adam Vinatieri, the only player who has seen and experienced the rivalry from from both sides. And though much has changed superficially, he insists the passion has not.
“It’s a fun rivalry. They’ve been really, really good for a long time. So has this team, as well,” said Vinatieri, who spent the first 10 of his 18 NFL seasons with New England. “It’s one of those things it seems like every year we have an opportunity to play them in meaningful games, so this is no different.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a fun game going there, and we’ll have to play real well to get them.”
When the Colts visit Gillette Stadium for Saturday night’s divisional playoff game, Vinatieri doesn’t expect a warm reception. He hasn’t received one yet since departing in 2006 for Indianapolis as a free agent.
HE’S GETTING HIS KICKS
Name: Adam Vinatieri
College: South Dakota State
NFL experience: 18th season; signed by New England Patriots as undrafted free agent in 1996; was with New England from 1996 through 2005; signed as free agent by Indianapolis Colts in 2006
Pro Bowls: 2002, 2004
NFL records: Most career postseason field goals, 42; most career postseason points, 187; most field goals in a single postseason, 14; most career Super Bowl field goals, seven; most career Super Bowl extra points, 13; most points in a single postseason, 49 (2006); tied with six other players for most field goals in a single postseason game, 5.
But he doesn’t mind.
Winding down his eighth season with the Colts, “Mr. Clutch” — the sobriquet he earned after booting last-second, game-winning field goals in two Super Bowls for New England — wouldn’t expect anything less than a cold embrace in a locale that despises the Colts as much as Indy fans loath the Patriots.
It is, after all, a part of the rivalry that hasn’t changed.
“I think they’re fanatical fans, like we have,” Vinatieri said. “I’m sure they’ll be loud, and probably in a negative way to me and the rest of the team, but that’s what it’s supposed to be.”
Either way, it’s not likely to faze Vinatieri, who — at 41 — is winding down one of the best seasons of his surefire Hall of Fame career.
Arguably the best kicker in NFL history, Vinatieri ranked second in the NFL in the regular season in field goals made (35, a career high) and was the its eighth-leading scorer with 139 points. The latter total was his highest since 2004, when he tallied 141 with the Patriots.
For the year, he made 35 of 40 field-goal attempts, including 4 of 6 from 50 or more yards. He missed only one field goal inside 39 yards and connected on all 34 of his extra-point tries.
In all, it was not a bad year for the league’s oldest player — a player who recently received the highest possible praise from an unlikely source: Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, who isn’t surprised Vinatieri is still achieving at an elevated level.
“Adam, when he was here, trained very hard in the offseason, was one of our hardest workers,” Belichick said during a Tuesday conference call with local reporters. “He worked out with all the other position players, and he was never really looked at as kicker in terms of his offseason program and what he did as far as training, that kind of thing. He was a very well-conditioned athlete.
“Mentally, he’s as tough and as consistent as they come. I can’t think of anybody, certainly no other kicker, that I’ve coached that I would put ahead of him in terms of mental toughness, concentration, focus, professionalism, all of those things. He’s a great player and a Hall of Fame kicker if there ever was one.”
Vinatieri has the resume to prove it.
Signed as an undrafted free agent by New England in 1996, the unheralded South Dakota State kicker played in four Super Bowls with the Patriots. They won three, including two (XXXVI and XXXVIII) on last-second kicks by Vinatieri.
With Indianapolis, he won a fourth ring when the Colts vanquished Chicago in Super Bowl XLI. He missed Super Bowl XLIV, a loss to New Orleans, with an injury.
No kicker in NFL history has played in more Super Bowls than Vinatieri, and none has converted more field goals (seven) in those games.
“I have the utmost respect for Adam and the way he approaches his job, the way he does his job,” Belichick said. “It really seems like every year, you turn on the film and he’s making 50-yard field goals and kicking them right down the middle and doing the same things that he did 17, 18 years ago.”
Vinatieri, who ranks fifth on the NFL’s career scoring list with 2,006 points, has no immediate plans to retire. He’s having way too much success, and way too much fun, to consider doing anything else.
Not surprisingly, he can’t wait for Saturday.
“I’ve been over on that sideline for a lot of years and know what (the Patriots) bring to the table. They’ll have their team ready to play,” Vinatieri said. “The fans will be loud and crazy. It’s playoff football. That’s what it’s supposed to be like.
“So the better team, the team that plays better, doesn’t make the mistakes, the turnovers, all those things, is the team that is going to win.”