Best kick ever? Blizzard boot started Adam Vinatieri's legacy

INDIANAPOLIS -- Making game-winning field goals isn't a big deal for Indianapolis Colts future Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri. He's made 27 of those in his 23-year NFL career and downplays them all.

But if you go back nearly 17 years, you find two field goals that weren't just any kicks for Vinatieri.

They were the moments that put him on the map.

The setting

2001 AFC divisional playoffs: This is better known as the "Tuck Rule Game" between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders.

Date: Jan. 19, 2002.

Conditions: A night blizzard, in 25-degree weather.

The kicks: A 45-yard field goal to force overtime and a 23-yard OT winner.

"There was 8 inches of snow. It was the deepest snow we ever played in," Tennessee Titans coach and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "It just kept getting thicker and thicker as the game went on. It started around 3 [p.m.] and it just kept coming."

"It's got to be the greatest kick of all time, certainly that I've seen. ... Adam came through for us with some enormous kicks." Patriots coach Bill Belichick on the 45-yard blizzard field goal in 2002

For some, Vinatieri's winning field goals in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII are considered the biggest of his career because of the stage. But the Patriots wouldn't have won Super Bowl XXXVI without those kicks in the blizzard, and they made Vinatieri part of the conversation when discussing the greatest kickers of all time.

Vinatieri, who Sunday became the NFL's leader in field goals made, could be making his final trip to Foxborough, Massachusetts, when the Colts play the Patriots on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox).

A second life

The opportunity to advance to the AFC Championship Game looked bleak when the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was sacked by the blitzing Charles Woodson and saw the ball knocked out of his hand with 1 minute, 50 seconds left in regulation. Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert pounced on the loose ball, dashing any hopes of the Patriots being able to force overtime. Until ... the officials went to the review booth. The play was reviewed and ruled as an incomplete pass because Brady's arm was moving forward.

Vinatieri: "That's a situation where obviously the whole tuck rule came into play. We're watching on the sideline and thinking it's a fumble and the season is over. The season is done. The season is done. That's all that kept going through my head. The review of the play and then all of a sudden I had to get to the net and start warming up and zoning in, because if it gets overturned it's on me to try to send this thing to overtime. Things happened so quick that it didn't give us a whole heck amount of time to think about implications of what had just happened."

Sebastian Janikowski (then the Raiders kicker, now with Seattle): "Disappointed, pissed off. It's the tuck rule, but you know, that was a fumble. To this day I know that was a fumble. ... But I'm happy for him because of his career. Look at the career he's had."

Tedy Bruschi (then-Patriots linebacker): "That was a game of extra chances for us. The tuck rule gave us a second chance and then we got a third and fourth chance to win in overtime."

The 'most difficult kick of my career'

Vinatieri had kicked in blizzard conditions during a game in Buffalo earlier in his career, but he had never kicked in 5 inches of snow and with no timeouts remaining to clear a path for his kick. Brady threw an incomplete pass and then ran a quarterback sneak to try to put the ball closer to the center of the field for Vinatieri's kick.

Vinatieri: "I just remember Kenny Walter, who was my holder at the time, said he was not going to try to spin the laces. He wasn't going to try to do any fancy stuff to try to screw anything up. He didn't want to spin it out of his hand. For me, I just remember taking a deep breath, trying to clear as much snow as I could where I was standing at to help with my footing."

Janikowski: "For Adam, the offensive line, they cleared the snow for him. But it depends on the stadium, the field. Back then I don't think it was heated, so it was definitely difficult. You don't want to go long cleats, because you're going to just slide on it, so you want to get a medium-sized cleat, so hopefully it sticks. It's pretty difficult."

Vinatieri: "I knew Oakland couldn't get a good rush because of the conditions, so I wasn't worried about the get-off time to block it. It felt for me like when you're trying to run on ice. Little baby steps to try to stay over top of your feet. I knew I wasn't going to get a super-high elevated ball. I'm thinking ... 'Stay on top of your feet,' because if I came hard I was going to land on my butt and the ball was going to hit the center on his backside and the game is over. I was probably less of, 'Oh s---, what is going on? What does this mean if I make it or miss it?' If you get caught up in the moment ... you have no chance.”

Janikowski: "You definitely got to adjust it, the way you finish. You finish going forward. The follow-through is a little bit different. Your weight, you want to have it more [in the] front because if you lean back you're going to slide."

How did that go in?

Patriots coach Bill Belichick: "I would say it was by far the greatest kick I have ever seen. The conditions were very difficult. There were probably 3-4 inches of snow on the ground. It was a soft snow that kind of didn't go away. I mean, there was no way to get around it. The magnitude of the kick was significant. It's got to be the greatest kick of all time, certainly that I've seen. ... Adam came through for us with some enormous kicks."

"I'm sitting there holding my breath saying, 'Come on baby, come on baby, come on baby.' I couldn't 100 percent tell it was good or not until the referee stepped forward and raised his hand." Vinatieri on his 45-yard field goal that forced OT vs. Oakland in 2002

Bruschi: "It was the most impressive kick I've ever seen made. That kick wasn't supposed to have a chance. The snow that was on the ground. The snow that was coming down. That was the kick that really propelled him to have the opportunity in the Super Bowl. I remember watching it and seeing this poof of snow when he kicked the ball. It was like a snow explosion. I don't know if he kicked snow or if the snow went up when he kicked the ball. I couldn't really see it too well when it was in the air. I just looked for the official signal. It was a line-drive kick. I didn't know if he was going to be able to get it up enough to avoid the block. There were so many things going on."

Vinatieri: "It was not very high over the line. It was maybe fingertips for the big guys. It never really climbed and it kind of stayed there as a 1-iron stinger shot the whole way. It left my foot and I was thinking, 'Get it above the line of scrimmage and get it on line.' The thing about it was, since it was a 45-yard field goal, even if you don't hit it great you should have enough distance to get it 45 yards unless there's a snowstorm. I'm not going to lie, when I kicked it, I saw it going straight and then I was like ... I don't know if it takes a second, 2 seconds or 2½ seconds for it to get to and clear the uprights. As I kicked and looked up, I saw that it didn't go flying to the left, right or back to me, so it wasn't blocked. I looked up and saw it was relatively straight. I'm sitting there holding my breath saying, 'Come on baby, come on baby, come on baby.' I couldn't 100 percent tell it was good or not until the referee stepped forward and raised his hand."

Vrabel: "It was the greatest kick. To watch him be able to kick that ball. It was no more than 12 feet, 15 feet off the ground at any point is how it looked from where I was standing. It was just like a line drive over a centerfielder's head."

Vinatieri: "It's funny because after it happened people asked me if I had to [try] that kick 100 times how many times would I make it. I told them it was a 50-50 shot. I look back and go, 'Who you kidding, that's maybe a 10 percent shot if you're lucky.' I think in my mind there was a little bit of relief, some excitement, some enthusiasm. It gave us a little of life back into us. Still had to go back in and play overtime."

Janikowski: "I was watching it. You see him, Hall of Famer, future Hall of Famer. It was disappointing but I was watching it. He's a great kicker, but you're always hoping that he'll shank one, but he didn't."

Just a chip shot

The Patriots won the toss and took the ball to start overtime, marching down to Oakland's 5. Raiders coach Jon Gruden's decision to try to ice Vinatieri by calling a timeout ended up helping the Patriots, because it gave them another opportunity to work on clearing the field.

Vinatieri: "All the big boys were ... working their asses off to clear the snow to try to give me my approach and my plant [area]. It was a heck of a lot better and whole lot easier than the first one. That kick was pretty good, pretty high. It was a normal-looking kick."

Bruschi: "For the overtime kick, half the team was out there it seemed, kicking the snow out of the way, making sure he had footing. It was worse for the kick to send it to overtime if I remember correctly. That was the legendary kick, but for him to be able to handle the pressure to keep our season alive and then to make the game winner for us to start what ended up being a great run shows how legendary Adam is."

Vinatieri: "I don't recall [Belichick] saying much after. I know guys were bouncing around in excitement. For that matter after the game, I don't remember the locker-room conversation other than Coach Belichick saying basically, 'Great win, hard-fought game. Now we're going to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship.' Bill was always good at letting you know that it was time to move on quickly."

-- Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson and Titans reporter Turron Davenport contributed to this article.