By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — Adam Vinatieri was part of the same New England Patriots rookie class as Tedy Bruschi in 1996.
The pair helped the franchise win three Super Bowl titles in four appearances before Vinatieri departed for the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent following the 2005 season. Bruschi retired three years later.
The two-time all-pro linebacker will comment on tonight's AFC divisional playoff game between the Colts and Patriots as an analyst for ESPN. The 41-year-old Vinatieri, meanwhile, continues to add to his Hall of Fame credentials in Indianapolis.
The kicker's 26 career playoff appearances are the most by any player who will take the field at Gillette Stadium tonight. But he won't take the moment for granted.
Last week's epic wild-card comeback against Kansas City marked the first postseason victory Vinatieri took part in since Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4, 2007. He missed the Colts' run back to Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 regular season because of injury and experienced four straight playoff defeats before the rally against the Chiefs.
It would be understandable for a man to take a few moments to celebrate in such a circumstance. But that's simply not Vinatieri's nature.
"It's one of those ones that you can look back and it doesn't happen often when it's that dramatic," he said. "We enjoyed it while it was there. We enjoyed it for the next day. We've really moved on, and we're focusing on New England now."
That calm sense of purpose has served Vinatieri well throughout a remarkable 18-year career. He's made game-winning kicks to end two Super Bowls, and his 45-yard field goal through near-blizzard conditions to force overtime in a 2002 divisional playoff game against Oakland is one of the most indelible plays in Patriots history.
"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," New England head coach Bill Belichick said. "He just did his job as well as he could possibly do it every day that I was here."
And he continues to do the same thing for Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.
Andrew Luck's first career victory — appropriately on a fourth-quarter drive against Minnesota last season — was capped by a 53-yard Vinatieri field goal.
This season, the ageless pro has made 4-of-6 attempts from 50 yards or more and 35 of 40 overall. His 87.5 percent success rate is his best since 2010 and the fifth-best of his career. His 35 field goals are a career high, and his 139 points rank second only to a 141-point season in 2004.
Not bad for a man who began the season as the oldest player in the NFL.
"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 he did 17, 18 years ago," Belichick said. "He's a great player, and a Hall of Fame kicker if there ever was one."
And he's not done yet.
Vinatieri's contract expires at the end of the season, but he doesn't sound like a man who is preparing for retirement. His performance certainly supports the idea of continuing his run in Indianapolis, but that's a conversation for the offseason.
For now, he's focused on winning a fifth Super Bowl ring.
He's not quite ready to rank these current Colts among the great teams he's been a part of, but he sees potential.
"I'll tell you in a few weeks from now," Vinatieri said. "This is a fun team. This is a great team. We've got everything in the locker room that we need to have to go a long way. We just need to make sure we continue to play well and continue to play together as a team. Do all the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves."