He had already missed twice, and the building must have felt as cursed as any stadium he'd ever set foot in. Yet Adam Vinatieri knew that somehow, some way, this game would come down to him.
It always happens that way for kickers on their bad days, just like the kid in Little League who prays the ball won't be hit in his direction, but it always finds him. Any time you match teams like the Patriots and Panthers, with their stifling defenses and conservative offenses, it isn't hard to imagine the game coming down to the kickers, a possibility that made Vinatieri's eyes light up early in the week.
''The way I look at it,'' he said then, thinking about his counterpart on the Carolina sideline, ''I'd much rather it be me with the last shot than John Kasay.''
But that was before Vinatieri pushed a 31-yard field goal attempt wide right on the Patriots' opening drive Sunday night, and then watched helplessly as the Panthers' defensive line collapsed the pocket on his second attempt from 36 yards, with Carolina's Shane Burton batting it harmlessly to the ground.
And there he was with the Super Bowl tied and 4 seconds on the clock and the crossbar still an unnerving 41 yards in the distance.
''You have to get them all behind you,'' Vinatieri said afterward, ''because the next one is the most important one.''
Meet pro football's version of Mr. February. Twice now the final game of the NFL season has extended into the month, and both times they've been won by booming kicks off the foot of a slim specialist who isn't quite big enough to make a regular impact anywhere else on the field.
The same guys who play everywhere else on that field think he might be the best clutch kicker in the game, yet every one is different.
Two years ago, Vinatieri sealed New England's last championship with a 48-yarder off the smooth surface of the artificial turf of the Superdome. Two weeks before that, he drilled a 45-yarder off the snowy turf of Foxboro Stadium that wobbled through the uprights like a knuckleball. Three weeks ago, he bailed the Patriots out with a 46-yarder when the 4-degree cold made the ball feel like a rock.
''Nobody makes all of them,'' Pats coach Bill Belichick said. ''But if you've got to have one kick with everything on the line, he's the one you want kicking it.''
Fifteen times before over the course of his career, Vinatieri has kicked field goals in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime to seal New England victories. What made this latest one even more special is that it came at the end of his worst regular season. He missed nine times, including two when the Patriots visited Reliant Stadium earlier this season to play the Houston Texans. Then Vinatieri failed on his first two attempts Sunday, trying to put them behind him as Kasay's kickoff following the Panthers final score bounced out of bounds and the Patriots began a final drive from the Carolina 40-yard line with 1:08 left. Because kickers are a fraternity unto themselves, even as he prepared for his own final chance, Kasay's failure nagged at Vinatieri.
''You never root against a guy,'' he had said earlier in the week, ''because you know how soon it could be you in the exact same spot.''
Soon enough, the shoe slipped onto the other foot. New England's Tom Brady hit Troy Brown on three straight throws, then spread the ball around to Daniel Graham and Deion Branch. At the end of that sequence, out stepped Vinatieri.
''You take a couple of deep breaths,'' he recalled, ''and try to hit it down the middle.''
As soon as it left his foot and began racheting higher with each end-over-end revolution, Vinatieri thrust his right fist toward the roof of the stadium.
''Every time we need him to come through,'' Pats linebacker Willie McGinest said, ''he comes through.''
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