INDIANAPOLIS — Adam Vinatieri has warmed up to those chilly New England receptions.
Sometimes, he hears cheers. Sometimes, he hears boos.
It’s all part of life as an ex-Pat in one of football’s fiercest rivalries — even for a kicker who signed with the Colts eight years ago.
“It’s the (Red) Sox-Yankees, if you will, that kind of thing where I think both teams respect each other and know what comes to the table,” Vinatieri said.
The story lines in this annual series have traditionally started and ended with the quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and now Andrew Luck.
But the ties run so much deeper, especially given Indianapolis’ ever-expanding list of former Patriots.
In addition to Vinatieri, there’s cornerback Darius Butler, who may replace injured starter Greg Toler in Saturday night’s playoff game, with the winner advancing to the AFC championship game. Butler was New England’s second-round pick in 2009, and since joining the Colts in September 2012, he’s intercepted eight passes and returned three for scores.
“You’ve always got something to prove,” said Butler, who was cut by the Patriots at the end of training camp in 2011. “And it’s always special when you’re facing a former team.”
Safety Sergio Brown spent two seasons with New England (12-4) before landing with Indy last season, too. If LaRon Landry doesn’t clear the concussion protocol before kickoff, the special teams standout could be starting, too.
And on Monday, the Colts added another New England fan favorite — receiver Deion Branch, the Super Bowl MVP in the Patriots’ last title run. Saturday will be his first trip to New England’s visiting locker room, and Branch isn’t entirely sure about how he’ll be treated by the fans who warmly embraced him for so many years.
“I think so far it’s been a little 75-25 (positive),” Branch said, based on what he’s heard about the fans’ reaction to signing with Indy (12-5). “Most everybody understands and they respect that, but then you have those die-hard fans.”
Massachusetts native Matt Hasselbeck is one of three Colts players — along with left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Gosder Cherilus — who played at Boston College, and he knows enough about the city and its fans to know the boos are nothing personal.
“It’s probably a sign of respect, deep down,” said Hasselbeck, who was a New England ball boy when his father, Don, played for the Patriots. “I think Adam is one of the all-time sports icons in that area, I know he was to me when I was in college there. Those kicks, especially in the snow, were special moments.”
Vinatieri’s history didn’t matter to some fans when he returned to Foxborough for the first time in November 2006. While former teammates and team owner Robert Kraft traded handshakes with Vinatieri, he heard boos along with the cheers. It probably won’t be much different Saturday night.
New England’s ties to Indy are limited. Coach Bill Belichick started his NFL coaching career with the Colts back in 1975 when the team was still in Baltimore, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia worked on the Colts staff in 1989 and 1990. The only former Colt on New England’s roster is receiver Austin Collie.
“I look forward to seeing guys that I’ve built relationships with there,” Collie said. “But to me it’s just - we’ve got to win. It’s all about advancing. That’s what my mindset is.”
The Colts concur.
“I’ve been over on that sideline for a lot of years, too, and I know what they bring to the table. They’ll have their team ready to play. The fans will be loud and crazy. It’s playoff football,” Vinatieri said. “That’s what it’s supposed to be like.”
Notes — Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring) was the only Colts’ player who did not practice Thursday. Coach Chuck Pagano said he expected everybody except Heyward-Bey to play Saturday night, though Landry still has to be cleared because of his concussion.