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By Len Pasquarelli
Beneficiaries last week of the bulletin board material provided by the fast-talking but slow-covering Denver Broncos secondary, the Indianapolis Colts might find themselves on the other side of the motivational motor mouth game as they prepare for Sunday's divisional-round matchup against the New England Patriots.
On Sunday night, following Indianapolis' victory over the Broncos, loose-tongued kicker Mike Vanderjagt suggested during a local television interview that the Patriots are "ripe for the picking." It didn't take long for his words to reach the ears of some New England players and for Patriots veterans to react.
"That's great for Vanderjagt," said Pats linebacker Willie McGinest, who has made big, game-altering plays in each of New England's last three victories over the Colts. "Hopefully, he makes it the next time."
The last reference was a reminder that, in this year's regular-season opener, Vanderjagt missed a potential game-tying field goal in the final seconds.
Truth be told, Vanderjagt's remarks were fairly innocuous, and the veteran kicker is so nonsensical at times, his ramblings are generally ignored. But there certainly is no love lost between the Colts and Patriots, who played in the same division before realignment altered the NFL landscape in 2002, and who have remained fierce rivals.
Even as erudite a head coach as Bill Belichick of the Patriots isn't above resorting to some hackneyed motivational ploys, and Vanderjagt may have unwittingly played right into his hands. Last year, when Indianapolis tight end Marcus Pollard crowed that the Colts had played so well in their first two playoff wins that the NFL should just "hand us the [Super Bowl] rings," Belichick made sure his charges were aware of those words.
Before the AFC championship game, Belichick held up his Super Bowl XXXVI ring during a team meeting and reminded the Patriots that the NFL doesn't just hand out such gaudy hardware, and that it had to be earned. There is little doubt that, in New England, the Vanderjagt interview will be incessantly replayed this week. And even less doubt that, in some fashion, his sentiments will be plastered on a wall in the Pats locker room.
"I think they're not as good as at the beginning of the year, not as good as last year," said Vanderjagt when asked about the Patriots pedigree on Sunday evening. "And I think they are beatable. We have to play well. There's no question about that. But I think we're going to come back [to Indianapolis] Sunday night, headed to the AFC title game. I think they're ripe for the picking."
It is hardly the first time the outspoken Vanderjagt's mouth has gotten him into some degree of difficulty.
After the 2002 season, while appearing on a Canadian television show, Vanderjagt noted that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning might not be tough enough to win a Super Bowl. Manning responded by referring to Vanderjagt as "our idiot kicker," who probably made the remarks while "liquored up." The two men subsequently apologized, but there is still some tension between them.
Last week, the Colts responded to suggestions from Denver players that Indianapolis wide receivers were soft and didn't like physical contact.
McGinest said that Vanderjagt's comments probably will not have much bearing on this weekend's game, but hinted he felt they were ill-timed.
"If Vanderjagt feels confident enough to guarantee victory, that's great," said the Pats veteran linebacker. "Great for him. But [because he's a kicker] there's going to be a whole bunch of plays when he's not going to be out there [on the field]. The rest of his guys will be out there dealing with it."