HOUSTON – Before we reveal Adam Vinatieri's personal choice as his all-time greatest kicking performance, let's review some of the prime contenders:
- The 45-yard game-tying field goal with 1:43 remaining against the Oakland Raiders in the 2002 division playoff that sailed through a heavy snow.
- The five-field-goal performance in the cold, snowy AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago.
- The 46-yard eventual game-winner against the Tennessee Titans in the 2004 division playoff that stayed true despite steady wind and near zero temperatures.
- And, of course, the 48-yarder as time expired in Super Bowl XXXVI to give the New England Patriots the victory.
Also, let's solicit his teammates' opinions:
"What do you think I am going to say?" said Joe Andruzzi, as if the choice were obvious. "The Super Bowl."
Not everyone agrees, we told the Pats lineman. Then we reminded Andruzzi of the others.
"Yeah, the Oakland one was big too," he nodded.
"The big snow kick," running back Mike Cloud said. "That's the most publicized one, I think. You see it on TV all of the time."
"The Tennessee kick," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "And then the five field goals in the AFC championship. That's the here and now. I don't want to think about the Super Bowl or the past."
Said linebacker Willie McGinest, "That's a lot of choices ... man."
That's the thing about Vinatieri. For any other kicker, any one of the above would be a crowning career achievement. But the ultra-clutch nine-year vet out of South Dakota State has booted 15 game-winners, including some of the most high-profile kicks in NFL history.
So what's Vinatieri's choice?
"Forty-five yards in the snow," he said as his Patriots prepared for Sunday's Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers. "That would be my most favorite and most difficult, because of the elements. It was probably the lowest percentage kick I ever made.
"The way the snow was coming down, the wind was blowing. I was just hoping it would clear the line of scrimmage first and foremost. Once it cleared that I was hoping it would go straight. Then whether it would make it 45 yards. So I was holding my breath a long time.
"The Super Bowl, obviously the pressure of the kick [was greater] but it was 70 degrees [and indoors] rather than 20."
All of these icon-making kicks have turned Vinatieri into a true superstar in New England despite playing a position that is often the most ignored (until you miss) and ridiculed in football. But they sell No. 4 jerseys at stores, Vinatieri has endorsement deals with New England Ford Dealers and Papa Ginos, a local pizza chain. He's even been on Letterman.
This is no idiot kicker. Just an idolized one.
"I've gotten to do a lot of things kickers don't normally get to do," he said. "It's usually the Hollywood quarterback."
Much is made of Vinatieri's ability to make plays in brutal weather that other kickers can't. He says it is just a matter of concentration and not, as it is often surmised, because he grew up in icy Yankton, S.D.
"The season is done by mid November up there, so I didn't play in a lot of weather like that," he said. "[Besides] I'm not sure you can prepare for it. You just have to play your best."
Vinatieri, 31, long ago earned the most coveted title a kicker can get from his teammates: football player. Part of that is because he is an adept tackler on kick returns. But mainly it is because he is so consistently great.
"So many games are decided by a point or two and he always comes through in clutch situations," Cloud said. "And off the field he's a great guy, no ego. He's a good guy to just go grab a beer with."
Running backs and kickers grabbing a beer together? There is hope for world peace.
The anti-kicker bias is one reason only one full-time place kicker, Jan Stenerud, is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Vinatieri must be on his way. Unless you think he needs another clutch one this weekend to cement his case.
"Well, I'm not predicting anything," he smiled.
But he wasn't nervous about the prospect either.