Foxborough, Mass. - For better or worse, Mike Vanderjagt has filled plenty of column space this week as the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots prepare for Sunday's AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
Vanderjagt, the Indianapolis place kicker, has created a stir by his choice comments regarding the Patriots following Sunday night's 42-24 rout of the Denver Broncos in the wild card round of the AFC Playoffs. While the comments somewhat innocuous when viewed in context, the exact details of what was said made their way to the Patriots locker room Tuesday, adding fuel to what has been a heated rivalry of late.
"I think they're not as good as at the beginning of the year, not as good as last year," Vanderjagt told WISH-TV in Indianapolis Sunday night when asked about the Patriots. "And I think they are beatable. We have to play well. There's no question about that. But I think we are going to come back [to Indianapolis] Sunday night, headed to the AFC title game. I think they're ripe for the picking."
Responses to Vanderjagt's comments varied throughout the Patriots locker room. Veteran safety Rodney Harrison succinctly offered his opinion on the topic, along with a mention towards Vanderjagt's missed game-tying field goal in the 2004 season opener. Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal as time expired in the Patriots 27-24 win, snapping his streak of 42 consecutive field goals.
"He should focus on making his field goals and not worrying about what we're doing over here," Harrison said. "He has to be a jerk, a Vander-jerk, if he's sitting there and criticizing Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy, one of the best quarterbacks in the game and one of the best coaches in the game. And then for him to put his foot in his mouth again just shows what type of character he has. He has no more time from my mouth, I'm through with him."
Harrison's comments are also a direct reference to Vanderjagt's comments made to a Toronto TV station following the 2002 season, when he criticized teammate Peyton Manning for not showing enough emotion and Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy as being too mild-mannered to be effective.
Certainly, if Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was looking for bulletin board material, it was provided by Vanderjagt.
"Have I ever done it?" Belichick responded when asked if he has ever used quotes to inspire a team. "Yes. Probably I have."
For his part, Belichick decided to stay mostly out of the fray, saying he didn't think the most recent quotes would have any influence on Sunday's game.
"I didn't read the quotes, and I don't really have any comment on what Mike Vanderjagt did or didn't say," Belichick said. "I'm sure he'll be out there a few times in the game to do his one special thing. We have a kicker, we'll put him out there, he'll do his special thing, and that's it. I don't think this game is going to be decided by some comments on Tuesday in the paper."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who holds a 5-0 all-time record against the Colts, agreed that Vanderjagt's comments wouldn't hold much meaning for Sunday's game.
"It's just talking. It's the kicker talking," Brady said. "It means nothing. It means nothing, whether he says or doesn't say it. I've heard other players on their team talk, and a lot of times they're very respectful of the other opponents, and that's the way we try to be. We understand that every team is capable of being beat. I don't think we ever make comments that teams are ripe for the picking or plucking or whatever happens at that point. I just think, I don't know, if that's a way to motivate yourself and motivate your team, I don't know."
In a reference not often made by members of the Patriots, Brady citied their recent accomplishments - including two Super Bowl wins in three years - saying it speaks for itself.
"I really think we have enough motivation as it is," Brady said. "We really don't need motivation at this point. We're motivated, and we're ready to go out there and practice today, put our game plan in, and go out there and play our best on Sunday. And that's what it's going to take. Whether one guy says something or not, a team that has won two Super Bowls in three years and has established a reputation for playing hard and winning football games, kind of speaks for itself."
While some players certainly speak their mind, NFL kickers aren't generally known to engage in a war of words with upcoming opponents. When he is on the field, Vanderjagt is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, producing seven consecutive 100-point seasons. Don't look for Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri to be making similar comments anytime in the near future.
"I'll tell you what, you won't catch me [doing it]," Vinatieri said. "I try to just do my job on the field and I guess it is better to not be heard, or seen maybe for the most part. Like I said, I don't know what he said so I don't want to comment on that one way or another. But, we are a member of the team. He has definitely helped his team win a lot of games. He is as much a member of the team as anybody, so I guess it is his right to say what he feels and thinks. But, like I said, I don't know what he said so it is no big deal."