INDIANAPOLIS -- Adam Vinatieri still has it.
The 36-year-old kicker showed his old team Sunday night that age hasn't sapped his distance, accuracy or proclivity for making big field goals. He hit a 52-yarder late in the game to give Indianapolis a desperately needed 18-15 victory over New England -- and Vinatieri a measure of revenge.
"I've got all the respect and admiration for that team," said Vinatieri, who left New England as a free agent after the 2005 season. "I've still got a lot of good friends over there. I guess that's why it's that much sweeter when you have an opportunity to play well and help your current team beat your former team. I'm pretty happy about that."
The kick was Vinatieri's longest since a 57-yarder at Chicago on Nov. 10, 2002, and it should have come as no surprise to the Patriots, who used Vinatieri's right foot to win two Super Bowl titles.
But New England (5-3) couldn't simply blame Vinatieri for this loss.
Of their four time-consuming scoring drives, three resulted in field goals, and Jabar Gaffney dropped a sure touchdown pass late in the third quarter. Then there was tight end David Thomas, who drew a 15-yard dead ball penalty that pushed New England out of field-goal range with 4:45 to go in the game. It sealed the Patriots fate.
"It was a mistake by me," Thomas said. "Obviously, they called it, and I'll own up to it. I felt like that was definitely a critical mistake for me, and it really cost the team."
The result allowed Vinatieri, the Patriots career scoring leader, to show he's still the NFL's best clutch kicker. Not that the Colts ever doubted him.
"When he kicked in pregame, he said he thought he'd be good from 55 and he made it pretty high in the net," coach Tony Dungy said.
This year's rivalry game had none of the trimmings from recent years. There was no championship at stake, no hype about unbeaten teams or defending Super Bowl titles. Heck, Tom Brady wasn't even playing.
Yet players and fans responded as if this was still the league's best matchup on a day full of headline attractions.
Indy (4-4) used Marvin Harrison as a punt returner. Bob Sanders played the entire game after returning from knee and ankle injuries. Bill Belichick even had a direct snap to Kevin Faulk.
But with both teams facing unusual circumstances -- New England is tied with the Jets and Bills atop the AFC East and Indy is just trying to stay in the playoff chase -- this game carried big stakes.
"We felt we had to win because we had lost two games already, were coming off a difficult game, a short week and I thought our guys showed some resolve," Dungy said. "But we have to get on some sort of streak, so I'm not ready to call it defining just yet."
The new realities forced Belichick and Dungy into a classic chess match, with both reverting to old game plans.
Two-time league MVP Peyton Manning exposed the Patriots' soft middle early, and Indy's second possession produced the best drive of the season: a 15-play, 91-yard, 9-minute, 2-second march that ended with Manning hooking up with a wide-open Anthony Gonzalez down the sideline for a 12-yard TD pass and a 7-0 lead.
Manning was 21-of-29 for 254 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, his best performance of the season.
New England countered with its old style dink-and-dunk attack, which never gave Indy a chance to pull away.
After trailing 7-6 at the half, BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored on a 6-yard TD run to open the third quarter and give New England a 12-7 lead. Faulk's 2-point run fell short of the goal line although replays showed he may have made it.
Manning answered with long passes on a short field, finally connecting with Gonzalez in the corner of the end zone for a 9-yard TD pass and Reggie Wayne hung on to the conversion pass in the back of the end zone after a big hit to make it 15-12.
New England tied the score on Gostkowski's 25-yard field goal with 11:33 left, but Manning drove the Colts 48 yards to set up Vinatieri for the winner.
"Before the half I told (special teams coach) Russ (Purnell) 'I feel good today going that way, if we've got a long one, maybe 60, let's go for it," Vinatieri said. "You've got to have the right situation and the right opportunity, and it worked out all right."
Notes: Harrison returned his first punt in the regular season since 2005. ... Faulk surpassed the 3,000-yard mark in receiving during the first half. The pass to Wes Welker was Faulk's second career completion. His other completion went to Tom Brady in 2001. ... Randy Moss didn't have a pass thrown to him until 1:25 into the second half. He finished with six catches for 65 yards. ... Welker caught seven passes, giving him at least six receptions in all eight games this season. It's the longest streak to open a season since Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith in 2001.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.