Foxborough, Mass. - It's paramount for an NFL kicker to have a short memory. Adam Vinatieri knows this fact, even without the constant reminders that kicking in the NFL playoffs is a "what have you done for me lately" proposition.
To kick in the NFL playoffs is be magnified, glorified and scrutinized all in the course of one game, or even one kick. Vinatieri, who has kicked in 13 postseason games in nine seasons with the Patriots, knows this as well as anyone. In case his memory was at all fuzzy, New York Jets kicker Doug Brien suffered through a case study scenario in last weekend's 20-17 overtime loss to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, site of Sunday's AFC Championship. Brien missed a tough 47-yard kick with 1:58 remaining that hit the goal post, and then missed a 43-yarder to win the game at the end of regulation that sailed wide left. It marked the first time in NFL playoff history a player had missed two field goals in the final two minutes of regulation.
Call it a wake up call for the remaining playoff kickers. You can go from hero to goat in the time it takes a 47-yard field goal to clank of the uprights.
"Hey, I feel like every kick you have to re-prove yourself," Vinatieri said. "It's not this season, it's not this game, it's every kick. Every time you step on the field you're trying to re-prove yourself. He'll bounce back. He's a great kicker, and he's bee in the league for a long time. He's had a very good year, and it was unfortunate it didn't go for him that day."
The margin of victory is often slim in the playoffs, meaning a game that is the critical last step before reaching the Super Bowl can often come down to a player who is on the field for only a handful of plays.
"Obviously, at this time of the year, good teams are playing good teams," Vinatieri said. "Sometimes the differential of winning and losing is magnified and a lot closer, you could say, there's not blowouts and those types of games. There are a lot of games that are coming right down to the wire. You just have to prepare for it the best you can. If you're number is called, do the best you can."
Decidedly in the Patriots corner is that Vinatieri has earned a reputation as one of the most clutch kickers in NFL history. His resume includes two game-winning field goals in the Super Bowl, two other game-winners in the divisional playoff round and record-tying five field goals in the 2003 AFC Championship against Indianapolis. He has kicked 17 game-winning field goals in the final minute of regulation or overtime on his way to becoming the most accurate kicker in franchise history with a .982 field goal percentage. He's also coming off a career season, in which he topped 1,000 career points and led the NFL with a career-high 141 points en route to his second Pro Bowl.
Heinz Field has proven to be a house of horrors for kickers. No kicker has ever made a kick of 50 yards or more in the stadium since it was opened for the 2001 season. Steelers' kicker Jeff Reed, who has made four of his five career attempts from that range in three NFL seasons, has only one field goal attempt from plus-50 yards at his home field - a 51-yard miss in his pro debut against Cincinnati in Week of the 2002 season.
In two games at Heinz Field, Vinatieri has made three of four field goal attempts, missing a 50-yard attempt in the Patriots 24-17 win over the Steelers in the 2001AFC Championship Game. He made both of his attempts, from 43 and 25 yards, at Pittsburgh earlier this season.
Vinatieri likens the conditions at Heinz Field to Gillette Stadium and many of the Northeastern stadiums with natural grass. Like Gillette, Heinz Field is open on one end and enclosed on the other, a setup that can create drastically different conditions on different ends of the stadium.
"A lot of similar reasons to why it's tough here," Vinatieri said. "Wind conditions, field conditions, weather conditions. You just never know what you're going to get a hold of. And, the last time I checked, it's hard to grow grass in January. The field will probably be beat up, and in January there could be a foot of snow and it can be as windy as heck. There are a lot of reasons why it can get tough."
Vinatieri will combat the conditions and history of kicking at Heinz Field by taking pre-game warm ups early and "try to figure out the best I can" how the wind is swirling on Sunday. He'll also rely on knowledge from punter Josh Miller, who kicked in Pittsburgh for all eight of his NFL seasons before joining the Patriots this year. Although he doesn't anticipate making more warm up kicks than usual, it will lay a groundwork of what to expect during the game.
"The more opportunities you get into a place like that, and you can figure it out and have a true home field advantage, you're better off," Vinatieri said. "I'm going to try and go there and get as many kicks as I can to try to figure out what the wind is doing on either side and know what [my] range is going to be and what to expect."
Then, as he does before every game, he'll confer with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to discuss his range and the kicking conditions on both ends of the stadium: "We try to stay pretty much on the same page [as much] as we can and know what are range is going to be [on] both sides."
While it is understandably a prerequisite for kickers, Vinatieri's self-professed short memory blocks out the good as well as the bad. In the Patriots 32-29 win over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII, he missed 31 and 36-yard field goals, but the kick most remember is his 41-yard game winner with four seconds remaining. He said he doesn't think about how things would be different had any of his memorable game-winning kicks gone the other way. It's no surprise the psyche of an NFL kicker is to focus only on what's ahead.
"I try not to ponder too much on misses or makes," Vinatieri said. "Every time you step on the field I think you have to re-prove yourself. Past experiences give you a little bit of confidence, but that doesn't mean you're going to make the next one. I really don't try to think too much about that. I try to just focus on the kick that's in front of me right now."
If playoff form holds true, there's a good chance Vinatieri and Reed will be at center stage of Sunday's tilt. In the event another game-winning field goal is to be kicked in the playoffs in poor playing conditions, all eyes will be on Vinatieri to make what he has always done look simple one more time. For Vinatieri, if he's ever overlooked or taken for granted because of his consistency over a long period of time, it's a problem he's willing to deal with.
"That's a good problem to have," Vinatieri said. "If you're being overlooked means you're doing your job well. If you're not doing your job well, that's when they start paying attention. I guess the way I look at, every person has a job to do - if it's coaches or players or equipment guys - prepare the best you can for your job you have to do."