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Will Championship Sunday Come Down to a Kick?

Imagine the drama if former Patriot hero Adam Vinatieri plays the villain role in Foxboro. We catch up with the Colts' 19-year veteran. Plus, picking the Super Bowl participants, the spotlight player in Seattle and 10 more things to watch

So I was thinking about what made this championship Sunday so interesting, so compelling. And I looked over the arcane stats, and thought about the matchups, and tried to figure out who has the edge in Seattle and Foxboro, and then it hit me.

Green Bay, 13-4.

Seattle, 13-4.

Indianapolis, 13-5.

New England, 13-4.

This has to be the most symmetrical championship Sunday in history, doesn’t it? Has there ever been a year with four teams with the same number of victories squaring off to get to the Super Bowl? And though I think it’s justified that the two home teams are comfy favorites—Sept. 4: Seattle 36, Green Bay 16; Nov. 16: New England 42, Indianapolis 20—I do think there’s reason to believe both ’dogs are better than they were two and four months ago. Even with Aaron Rodgers’ barking calf stapling him to the pocket instead of enabling him to be the best mobile quarterback in the game.

But today I want to write about a player who I think could be the story of the day (the month? the year?) on Sunday. That is 42-year-old Adam Vinatieri, the Indianapolis kicker. He spent his first 10 seasons in the NFL kicking for the Patriots. He has spent the past nine seasons kicking for Indianapolis. He will forever hold a position in Patriots’ lore for his 45-yard field goal through the snow that beat the Raiders in the 2001 playoffs, the Tuck Rule game that propelled the Patriots on their three-title run. The margin in New England’s three Super Bowl victories was three points each time, and the decisive points came from Vinatieri with zero seconds, four seconds and 8:40 left in the games against St. Louis, Carolina and Philadelphia.

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That is a clutch kicker. And that is a kicker who will be strongly considered for Canton five years after he retires from football. Which he does not appear to be in any rush to do.

"I know I don’t have another decade in me," Vinatieri told me, “but I do believe I have a little more time to play. I still love it as much as I did in ’96, and I still think I can do it pretty well."

There are many amazing things about Vinatieri’s career, but let’s take a moment to appreciate this one: Vinatieri will kick in his 30th postseason game in history Sunday evening where he began, in Foxboro. That will be the record. No player in history has ever played in that many postseason games. (Jerry Rice, the previous record-holder, played in 29 postseason games.) And Vinatieri plans to play in more. Which should be a gimme. He has missed two field goals all season. Remarkably, Vinatieri and his successor, Stephen Gostkowski of the Patriots, have identical stats for field goals this season, and the two kickers are the best of any in football in 2014: 35 of 37 (including playoffs), for a percentage of .946.

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A little bit of history here. Vinatieri was kicking for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe in 1996 when a coaching friend told New England coach Bill Parcells he should look at the South Dakotan. Parcells was interested in replacing declining veteran kicker Matt Bahr anyway, so he brought Vinatieri in for 1996 training camp. Vinatieri beat out Bahr. And in the first three games of the season, Vinatieri missed four field goals. In the fourth game, against newbie Jacksonville, Parcells found himself on the sidelines of a tie game in overtime as Vinatieri lined up a 40-yard attempt to win the game. Parcells was thinking: “If he misses this, we’ll have to bring in some competition for him this week in practice.”

Vinatieri kicked a 40-yarder to win, and the rest is history.

"I never thought in a million years I’d play 19 years—plus," Vinatieri said. “I think what has made me play this long, and play well this year, is I have tried to live a cleaner life. I eat right. I eat healthier than I have. I’ve dropped a few pounds, eight or nine. The older you get, if you want to stay an athlete, you probably need to drop a few pounds. I don’t have a bunch of alcohol anymore. I know physically what I’m supposed to do, and I do it. I get enough sleep. I find that when I take care of myself, if I have some aches and pains, they usually go away. You know physically what you’re supposed to do."

What a great story it would be—though I doubt it will happen—if the AFC Championship Game came down to Vinatieri lining up to kick the winning field goal against the Patriots, in front of the fans who love him forever because of some of the greatest clutch moments in New England sports history. I don’t care what else happens this weekend. That will be the story of Sunday, and one of the great stories in recent NFL memory.

* * *

My picks this weekend:

Seattle 27, Green Bay 20. A hunch: Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have the mobility to win this game. Russell Wilson does, and for the second straight year, the former Asheville (N.C.) Tourists second baseman leads the Seahawks to the Super Bowl with a scintillating home victory.

New England 30, Indianapolis 27. Andrew Luck is better than we think—and hey, we all already thought he was great. But this game will not be easy for the Patriots. Remember how they steamrolled Indy a couple of months ago? Won’t happen again, and Rob Gronkowski will have to be the key man to eke this one out.

Player You Need To Know This Weekend

Richard Rodgers, tight end, Green Bay (number 89). Hmmmm. An important player for the Packers named Rodgers, an overlooked draft prospect from Cal. This … sounds … familiar. This Rodgers, third-round rookie tight end Richard, was targeted only 31 times in Green Bay’s 17 games this year. He saved the best for the 31st target from Aaron Rodgers on Sunday against Dallas: That was the 13-yard touchdown pass that sealed the divisional win and propelled Green Bay to the title game. So why is Richard Rodgers a key Sunday? Because I expect Seattle to blitz the vulnerable Aaron Rodgers (strained calf) quite a bit … and if that happens, Green Bay is going to need a safety valve. Multiple safety valves, and not just veteran tight Andrew Quarless. The Pack will need Richard Rodgers, who has a knack for getting open.

Bose Sound Bite of the Week

Bill Belichick, to the Patriots defense during Sunday's win over the Ravens:

"Look fellas, it's just about doing our job. Just cover your man. Do what you're supposed to do. We're trying to make too many plays, and we're not doing what we're supposed to do. Play the underthrown ball, tackling, jamming the receivers. Just play the defense. That's all we gotta do. They're not giving us anything we haven't seen before. There's no scheme plays. It's just disciplined football. C'mon fellas, we've got 25 minutes..."

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Regular Old Quote of the Week

"Not much. It takes away a little of his mobility. I think a few plays that aren’t there, he’s not able to just take them and get the 10 yards and first down like he does when he’s healthy. There were a few chances last week he could probably run for the first down and instead he threw the ball and still made a play out of it."

—Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, on how much he thinks Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ calf injury—which Rodgers said is worse this week than it was last week—will affect him in the NFC Championship Game in Seattle on Sunday.

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

1. The weird starting times. So the West Coast game is at noon local time, and the East Coast game is at 6:40 New England time. Huh? Shouldn’t it be reversed? There’s nothing strange about this, actually. FOX and CBS alternate times of the conference title games, and have done so for years. This season, it was the NFC’s turn to go first, as it was in January 2013, January 2011, January 2009, etc. The NFL ensures that no team will ever have to start a game earlier than high noon by starting the first game at the fixed time of 3:05 p.m. Eastern Time. Now, this still means that the 12:05 p.m. PT start time in Seattle will be the earliest start time for a Seahawks game in history, and will cut into tailgating/drinking time out west, and it makes no sense to start the East Coast game in the evening. Yes, but CBS loves the fact that the higher-rated game, traditionally, will be the late game, because it seeps into prime time on Sunday night. So there’s no way there would have been a swap of the two games, no matter how much common sense it would have made.

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2. The Green Bay rookies need to come through. 

I highlighted tight end Richard Rodgers above. But starting center Corey Linsley is the most vital Green Bay rookie, seeing that he has his hands on the ball for every offensive snap. And Davante Adams has been a gem of speed and quickness and veteran wiles in the receiving corps, particularly late against Dallas. But Richard Rodgers could be the best of them all this week, because of …  

3. The Seattle blitz. I keep saying that the best way for the Seahawks to crush Rodgers is to blitz, which would set off a chain reaction—the blitz leads to lighter coverage, which leads to Rodgers having to throw quickly to short and intermediate targets. Such as Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless.

4. Russell Wilson. Tell me, all of those out there who don’t think Wilson’s a great player: What will you say if he leads his team to two Super Bowls in his first three years as an NFL quarterback? There’s more to football than stats. There’s leadership, and there’s playing the game in a different way than it’s been played, and there’s playing pressure football like it’s a JV game in high school. Wilson plays the game like that.

5. The Patriots, trying for a sixth Super Bowl appearance in 14 years. There’s something that doesn’t happen very often. The same coach. The same quarterback. The same owner. Six Super Bowls in 14 years. That would qualify the Patriots as a dynasty, such as it is in today’s sporting world. The underdog Colts stand in the way.

6. The Denver situation. I can’t blame John Elway. I really can’t. Can you blame him for wanting more? He has had Peyton Manning for three years, and he’s gotten two opening-game playoff losses and a 35-point Super Bowl embarrassment. Not saying it’s John Fox’s fault, because it isn’t. But John Fox gets wanderlust and wants a little more authority inside the team, and Elway thinks the coaching staff has done just a “meh" job, and there you have it. The seeds were sown for Elway to look outside the organization. And I might want to do the exact same thing. It’s interesting that Elway seems to be willing to let go offensive coordinator Adam Gase, even though Manning really likes Gase.

7. Manning’s future. I do not buy the suggestion that Manning will be dissuaded from coming back for the 2015 season because Gase may not return. Possible, but not certain. Manning is a pragmatist. He knows change can be good and energizing. Whether he returns won't be decided by who is going to coach him but rather by how he feels, and if the new coach wants him back. Will the new coach want a healthy Manning back? Does a bear … You know what I mean.

8. Atlanta’s coaching situation. I agree: The Falcons seem destined to wait for Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. But watch for that rising young coordinator, Detroit’s defensive boss Teryl Austin. He interviewed again Thursday, and Falcon brass likes him a lot.

9. Gary Kubiak. I believe if he told Elway he wanted the job he would likely be the next coach of the Broncos. But I believe he is torn. He told Baltimore coach John Harbaugh a few days ago he was staying, and he does not like to break his word, but obviously he had no idea his dream job—where he backed up Elway at quarterback during their playing days, where he raised his children, where one son works in the Broncos’ personnel department—would open up this offseason. But it did. And now, by sometime today, Kubiak has to tell Elway whether he wants to be considered for the job or not. One clue, and I do not know what this means: The Ravens had all-day personnel meetings Wednesday, with the Denver job tantalizingly close for Kubiak, and Kubiak participated fully and with the full intent of being a Raven long-term.

10. The Ravens. There is an air of mystery around the Ravens—at least there was Thursday night—concerning Kubiak’s future because the club offices were closed for a long weekend, Friday through Monday. So word of Kubiak’s fate certainly will leak before the team is back to work Tuesday. We shall see. The collateral damage in any coaching search is always high, but Baltimore would be hurt badly if Kubiak leaves for Denver. If he goes, John Harbaugh would have to hire his fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons, and I can tell you this categorically: Joe Flacco loves Kubiak. They are both quietly intense, don’t-worry-be-happy guys, and by January, the Ravens were a powerful offensive team with a good screen game and good run game. They absolutely do not want to lose Kubiak.

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