SOLID DOWN THE STRETCH

A year after missing the post-season, kicker Adam Vinatieri was an integral reason the Colts made it to the playoffs in the 2010 season.

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Vinatieri Rebounds from Difficult 2009 for Solid 2010 Season
INDIANAPOLIS – Adam Vinatieri said he never lost faith.

Not that what he went through during the 2009 NFL regular season was easy. Without question, it wasn't, and the Colts' veteran kicker said the post-season that followed was difficult, too.

For one of the first times in his career, he couldn't contribute.

And he missed the post-season for the first time in his career, too.

But Vinatieri said recently while all that was true, none of it meant he didn't believe he could return this past season and do what he has done for a decade and a half in the NFL – namely, be one of the NFL's best kickers.

In the season that just ended, that's just what he did.

"The 10 guys that are on the field with me at the same time, the nine guys up front blocking, and (long snapper) Justin (Snow) and (punter/holder) Pat (McAfee), they do a great job," Vinatieri said near the end of the 2010 season, a season on which Colts.com will look back in the next several weeks.

"So it makes my job a lot easier."

Vinatieri, who twice was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, was a major reason the Colts won a seventh AFC South title in eight seasons, with his 43-yard field goal as time expired giving Indianapolis a 23-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans in the regular-season finale.

"He has really been solid down the stretch here," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said late in the season. "He has made a lot of kicks.

"You don't take him for granted. I certainly don't."

Vinatieri, who not only had been one of the NFL's most reliable clutch kickers in his first 13 NFL seasons but one of the most durable, in 2009 missed 10 games with hip and knee injuries. It was the most games he had missed in a season, and just the second time he had missed a game with an injury.

He converted seven-of-nine field goals and his 38 points marked the first time in his career he hadn't scored at least 100 points in a season. He did not kick in the Colts' three post-season games.

"I was extremely proud of our team last year," Vinatieri said recently. "They did a great job. It was a little difficult to stand on the sideline and try to be a cheerleader instead of a participant in the game. I tried to do what I could as far as leadership, not being on the field.

"It was difficult personally, but professionally it was great watching our team do as well as they did."

This past season was vastly different story.

Vinatieri, in his 15th season and fifth with the Colts, turned in perhaps the best season of his Colts career, missing just two field goals and finishing third in the NFL in scoring with 129 points.

"Last year I was still feeling it quite a bit throughout the season," Vinatieri said. "I tried to get back onto the field as much as I could last year and it took me a little while. But this whole year, this offseason, we spent a lot of time strengthening back and doing some rehab and making sure that I was healthy.

"I can't say that I feel like a new man, but I definitely feel like a repaired man."

Asked late in the season how Vinatieri could kick so well for such an extended period, Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell replied, "Talent, work ethic and certainly an understanding on how to take care of his body.

"His longevity is based upon the fact that not only is he good, not only is he extremely accurate, but he is always a real professional in terms of how he goes about taking care of himself," Caldwell said. "He is very settled. He is not prone to do anything in extreme and he functions in the clutch, consistently."

That was true again late in the season.

Vinatieri, who twice during his career with the New England Patriots kicked late field goals to win Super Bowls, did not miss a field goal in the last 10 games of the season, and during the final four games of the regular season – with the Colts needing victories each week to make the post-season -- he converted nine-of- nine field goals. His three field goals were the difference in a 30-28 victory at Tennessee in early December, and his last-play field goal against Tennessee was his first-game winner since the 2008 season.

"Every year it's a little bit different," Vinatieri said. "There's some years where you get a handful of those in the course of year."

Vinatieri finished the season converting all three field-goal attempts in a 17-16 loss to the New York Jets in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game, and in what became the final moments of the Colts' season, Vinatieri did what he has done as often as any kicker in NFL history:

He made a clutch kick late in a post-season game.

Trailing 14-13 inside the two-minute warning, the Colts reached the Jets 33-yard line before a drive stalled with just under a minute remaining. The Colts were left with a 50-yard field goal to take the lead, and Vinatieri – as he had been for 10 weeks – was perfect with the kick with 53 seconds remaining.

It was the third 50-yard-plus post-season field goal by Vinatieri since joining the Colts, and while the Jets' subsequent game-winning field goal kept it from being a game-winner, it didn't keep his 2010 season from being one that featured a remarkable comeback – and a remarkably consistent, productive season.

"I didn't have any doubts that I could make it back," Vinatieri said. "I knew that the surgeries that I did have were definitely non-career threatening surgeries. It was just a matter of getting back and getting healthy.

"That's the nature of this sAfter seasons are over, a lot of guys have shoulders and knees and stuff that has to be fixed and then you go into next year. I figured if we had the offseason to get ready and prepared and get healthy again it should be a successful season."

And once again for one of the most successful kickers in NFL history, that's just what it was.

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