This time, Colts put better foot forward

Vinatieri could be key vs. former team

Manning's legacy might ride on kicker

Nfl Playoffs

Pro football

January 20, 2007|By Don Pierson | Don Pierson,Chicago Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS -- Adam Vinatieri is out to prove it is football, after all, not armball.

As another Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning showdown looms in tomorrow's AFC title game, Vinatieri is poised to make liars of the historians who believe quarterbacks are more important than kickers.

While Brady gets the accolades for winning three of the past five Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, the record will show that field goals by Vinatieri were the difference every time -- 20-17 over the St. Louis Rams, 32-29 over the Carolina Panthers, and 24-21 over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Now with Vinatieri on their side, Manning and the Indianapolis Colts are favored to reach their first Super Bowl -- by a margin of three points, of course.

In their first two playoff wins, against the Kansas City Chiefs and Ravens, the Colts have scored on eight field goals and only two touchdowns. So this game could very well be Vinatieri vs. his rookie replacement, Steve Gostkowski, with Manning and Brady mere onlookers.

Probably not. Manning vs. Brady is pro football's marquee matchup. In Indiana, this is almost as good as Magic vs. Bird, except Manning has more catching up to do to keep the rivalry close.

Manning has won the past two showdowns with Brady, both in New England. But that only got him to 2-6 against Brady, and he's still 0-2 in the playoffs.

The Colts lost the AFC title game in 2003 and the semifinal in 2004, both in New England. For the first time, Manning gets Brady at the RCA Dome in the postseason. But the Colts must be careful what they wish for -- Brady is 10-0 in domes.

The pressure remains squarely on Manning.

"People talk about your legacy. That really is a deep word for me," Manning said yesterday. "This week I've just focused on the fact that we're playing New England in a championship game. The Patriots' defense gives you more to concentrate on than your own place in history, so that's what I'm dealing with."

Meanwhile, Brady was asked whether he could imagine how much pressure Manning has to get the monkey off his back.

"I have no idea," Brady answered.

Colts coach Tony Dungy can relate to Manning's pressure because he's never made it to a Super Bowl, either. He was fired the year before his Tampa Bay Buccaneers got there under Jon Gruden. Dungy lost in the NFC title game in 1999 in St. Louis before losing to the Patriots in 2003. This is his first shot at home.

"I don't know that [Manning] will be judged against Tom Brady," Dungy said. "But every quarterback will be judged against Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr and guys who have won Super Bowls. That's the way it is. I think we have appreciation now for Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason and Dan Fouts and guys who haven't won it. But at the time, we talk about how many Super Bowls you've won. As time goes by, history is a little easier on you."

With Vinatieri in place of Mike Vanderjagt, once labeled by Manning as an "idiot kicker," Manning should enjoy an unfamiliar comfort zone. Vinatieri missed only three field goals this season, two against the Patriots on Nov. 5, but he also made two in the Colts' 27-20 win.

The Colts paid him a $3.5 million signing bonus as part of a five-year, $12 million contract to sign as a free agent. The Patriots went with rookie Steve Gostkowski, who hit the winning points against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

Inside the RCA Dome over his career, Vinatieri is 23-for-23, including 12-for-12 this season.

"He's not going to miss," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "You're going to have to block the kick, especially playing indoors. We're going to have to block a kick for him to miss one."

Vinatieri considers this reunion less dramatic than his kicks.

"If you keep winning, inevitably your crossroads will meet," he said.

Or did he mean crossbars?

Don Pierson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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