INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Adam Vinatieri is ready for anything he could encounter Sunday night in New England – cheers, jeers, chants and taunts, even a last-second kick. He’s content with it.

For the first time in his 11-year career, Vinatieri will play at Gillette Stadium not as one of the Patriots’ revered stars, but rather as one of those dreaded Indianapolis Colts. He figures fans will respond accordingly.

“I might have a few people give me a few cheers at the beginning, but I’m expecting once the game starts they are going to try to take the edge and that is probably yelling at us like every team does,” he said.

In 10 seasons with New England, fans embraced Vinatieri.

But when the NFL’s best clutch kicker left as a free agent in March, the reaction was split. Some fans felt betrayed more by Vinatieri’s decision to join the Patriots’ rival than by his departure. Others blamed the team for allowing him to walk away.

Sunday’s game gives New England fans another chance to flaunt their unique homecoming salute.

Last spring, when Johnny Damon returned to Fenway Park as a member of the New York Yankees, fans booed, chanted “traitor” and wore T-shirts that read:

“Looked Like Jesus.”

“Throws Like Mary.”

“LOYAL Like Judas.”

“Johnny B GONE!”

It’s doubtful Vinatieri’s return will create that much animosity, because the Colts-Pats series pales in comparison to the hatred between the Red Sox and Yankees.

As, perhaps, a subtle message that he’s still a New Englander at heart, Vinatieri walked into the Colts’ locker room Wednesday wearing a Red Sox hat. And ex-teammates expect Vinatieri to get a warmer reception than most former players.

“I don’t think he’ll get booed. He’s done too many good things here,” punter Josh Miller said. “I’m sure if he does get booed, every person that’s booing would love to have him over for dinner.”

Vinatieri has tried to downplay the tension by constantly describing his departure as a business move for both sides.

Early in training camp, though, he referred to New England only as “my former team.” He also acknowledged the Patriots had opportunities to re-sign him, and when they opted out of the sweepstakes, he wasted no time in joining another Super Bowl contender.

“I don’t think it was a lack of interest. I just think their philosophy is what their philosophy is,” Vinatieri said Wednesday. “I don’t want to say that they probably didn’t want me back, I just think that their decision-making … I don’t know.”

Vinatieri’s tone has changed over the past couple of months as he’s grown more accustomed to life in Indy.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick hasn’t said much about one of his more controversial decisions. When asked about his own memories of Vinatieri this week, Belichick responded in his customarily short manner, failing to mention either of Vinatieri’s Super Bowl winning kicks or the two kicks he made in a snowstorm against Oakland that ignited the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run.

“He made a lot of good plays for this team,” Belichick said. “They were all important.”

Other Patriots remember Vinatieri more fondly.

He’s played phone tag with punter Miller, Vinatieri’s holder the last two seasons, and safety Rodney Harrison said he still respects the kicker who helped New England earn its reputation as this decade’s most formidable team.

“The respect and love is always there for him, and I know the fans love him a lot,” said Harrison, known best for his hard hits. “He’s directly responsible for us winning three Super Bowls.”

So far, the decision has worked out for both teams.

Vinatieri has made 14 straight field goals, despite missing the first three games of his career, and was voted AFC special teams player of the week after making a last-second field goal at Denver last Sunday to keep the South Division-leading Colts perfect at 7-0.

Rookie Stephen Gostkowski is 6-of-9 on field goals and 21-of-21 on extra points to help the Patriots (6-1) take early control in the AFC East.

But if it comes down to another last-second kick on Gillette Stadium’s newly installed grass, the Colts will take their chances with Mr. Clutch – something the Patriots haven’t forgotten.

“I don’t want to put him in a position to kick a game-winning field goal,” four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour said. “Obviously, you want to keep Adam out of that situation, because the odds are not in our favor. … We all wish Adam success, but not this week.”

AP-ES-11-02-06 1601EST


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