Tom Brady’s late-game heroics helped Adam Vinatieri become perhaps the best clutch kicker in NFL history. Playing on Peyton Manning’s team this season has given Vinatieri a chance to build on his legend.
Vinatieri returns to New England for the first time since signing with the Indianapolis Colts, who pit Manning against Brady and the Patriots on Sunday in a matchup of the AFC’s top teams and two of the league’s best quarterbacks.
“It should be a fun game,” said Vinatieri, who is 14-for-14 in field goal attempts in his first season with Indianapolis. “It’s only one game out of 16 games, but it will be special for me.”
Indianapolis signed Vinatieri to a five-year, $12 million contract in March, prying him from the team with which he made 18 game-winning field goals in the final minute of regulation or in overtime.
Vinatieri, who also delivered the winning kicks in two of three Super Bowl victories for the Patriots (6-1), was the biggest offseason acquisition for the Colts (7-0). He made the game-winning 37-yard field goal in last Sunday’s 34-31 victory over the Denver Broncos.
The Colts became the first team to start 7-0 in consecutive seasons since the 1929-31 Green Bay Packers did it three straight years.
Manning, who completed five straight passes to set up Vinatieri’s winning kick, has produced 26 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including three in the past four games.
Meanwhile, Brady passed for 372 yards and threw touchdowns to four different receivers in the Patriots’ 31-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night.
“He is a lot like a guy like Tom Brady,” Vinatieri said of Manning. “Works hard in the offseason, studies lots of film, tries to get the edge in anyway he can. Both of those quarterbacks are very similar in the way they lead the team and you can’t go wrong with having either of those guys on your team.”
The Colts also traveled to New England with a 7-0 record on the first weekend of November last season. Manning and Brady each threw three touchdowns, Indianapolis beat the Patriots 40-21—the Colts’ first victory in seven tries against Brady and their first road win over New England since 1995.
The Patriots knocked the Colts out of the playoffs following the 2003 and 2004 seasons, and the teams may be headed for another postseason matchup. The winner of Sunday’s game will have the inside track for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
“I try not to get into the `Game of the Century’ mode,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us, but we showed last year that when we play better (than the Patriots), we win. It doesn’t matter where we play.”
The Colts rank fourth in the league with 205 points. Manning leads the NFL in quarterback rating and trails only Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb in passing yards and touchdowns.
But Manning will face a strong Patriots defense, one of the few units that has given the two-time league MVP trouble in the past. Manning has thrown 14 interceptions in 11 career games against New England.
Despite last year’s victory, he’s only 2-7 against the Patriots since Bill Belichick became their head coach.
“He wasn’t befuddled last year when he came in and threw a number of touchdown balls,” Belichick said. “You can refer to the past, but it has nothing to do with what happens Sunday.”
The Patriots have allowed 87 points—third-fewest in the NFL—and are the only team in the league yet to give up more than 17 points in a game. They had four interceptions and four sacks Monday, and haven’t allowed an offensive touchdown in the last 10 quarters.
“Our football team does have a lot of versatile guys, a lot of guys that can play lot of different roles and different defenses,” said New England defensive end Richard Seymour, who missed last year’s meeting with the Colts due to an elbow injury but expects to play Sunday. “We have the ability to move in and out of fronts and give offenses different looks.”
Brady could give a struggling Colts defense problems. He picked apart the Vikings on Monday night with one of the best games of his career, and his first four-touchdown effort since beating Buffalo on Dec. 27, 2003.
After entering the contest without a completion longer than 35 yards this season, Brady had two passes of 40 yards or more in the first half.
“Tom is such a smart guy,” said Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson, who leads the team with 28 receptions for 366 yards. “He studies. You could ask him anything, and he knows it.”
Indianapolis has allowed 21.9 points per game, and ranks last in the NFL against the rush.
Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, obtained from Tampa Bay in a trade two weeks ago, was thrust into the Indianapolis starting lineup almost immediately in place of injured Montae Reagor. After two games, the 300-pound McFarland has only seven defensive and special teams tackles, including just two stops against Denver.
“We’ve got to tackle a lot better. This game is predicated on throwing, catching, running, blocking, tackling, and we’ve got to do the tackling part on defense,” McFarland said.
Colts Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders is expected back on the field this week. He has missed the past five games after having arthroscopic knee surgery.