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Ravens' Justin Tucker looks forward to matchup with 'sports hero' Adam Vinatieri

In the box score, it read like any other extra point. To a fellow NFL kicker, it was a picture of sheer mastery.

With snow piling rapidly on the field in Buffalo, Adam Vinatieri cleared his small strip of ground. He was backed up 10 yards because of a penalty, and the Indianapolis Colts needed the point to tie the game with 1:16 on the clock. Vinatieri picked the snow out of his right cleat, charged toward the ball and sent it low and veering through the early-December storm.

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At the last moment, it hooked left and cleared the crossbar — another miracle kick in a 22-year career full of them.

The Ravens look to capitalize on Colts' lack of pass protection Saturday.

“It only counts for one point, but for what it’s worth, I think that might be one of the greatest plays in NFL history,” Ravens kicker Justin Tucker said. “I’m not just blowing smoke. Obviously I’m a little biased because we play the same specialized position, but that was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”

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Vinatieri will be in town Saturday with the Colts, and his matchup with Tucker will pit the face of one NFL kicking generation against the face of the next. Though Tucker is often ranked as the top kicker in the sport today, he unabashedly calls the 44-year-old Vinatieri the greatest of all time.

“You look at how long he’s been playing, how well he’s been hitting the ball, and it seems like he’s getting better with age,” Tucker said. “It’s really cool to watch.”

When Tucker first envisioned a kicking career as a 14- or 15-year-old, Vinatieri was a far-off measuring stick.

“I think the one thing everybody can appreciate and respect about Vinatieri’s game is how locked in he is in those clutch situations and how he always seems to come through in the moments that are the biggest,” Tucker said. “And that was something I was naturally drawn to, that I wanted to emulate.”

Vinatieri laughs at the realization he’s become the grand old man of the kicking community. He once looked up to the likes of Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson.

“I guess the shoe’s on the other foot now,” he said. “Obviously, somebody’s got to be the old guy in the league, even if I don’t look at myself that way.”

He expresses great admiration for Tucker, describing him as “a pure ball-hitter, as clean and smooth as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Matt Stover has a rare vantage on the two kickers. The former Raven has spent many hours observing Tucker at the team’s training complex in Owings Mills. And he filled in for an injured Vinatieri during the Colts’ 2009 Super Bowl run.

Like Tucker, Stover was mesmerized by Vinatieri’s recent extra point in the snow. To him, it summarized everything that sets his former teammate apart from even other excellent kickers.

“It didn’t matter how ugly it was,” said Stover, who knows plenty about kicking in adverse conditions from his days in Cleveland. “He found a way to make it. It’s all about survival at the highest levels of this league.”

He said Vinatieri has a rare ability to push down his doubts and take a deep breath at moments that might overwhelm other players.

“It’s a matter of focusing on the action of kicking the ball and not the consequence,” Tucker said.

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Stover lived through the experience of trying to match Vinatieri in a big game. When the Colts came to Baltimore to play the Ravens in the 2006 AFC divisional round, neither team could cross the goal line at a tense M&T Bank Stadium. But Vinatieri kicked five field goals to Stover’s two (neither man missed) and the Colts won.

Tucker and Vinatieri share more than excellence at their chosen craft. When Tucker was in high school in Texas, his father flew in kicking coach Doug Blevins to work with the teenager.

How did Blevins make his reputation as a whisperer to NFL kickers?

He invited an unknown young man from South Dakota to his home base in Abingdon, Va., and helped him find the technique and consistency to become a pro prospect. That young man was Adam Vinatieri.

“He got me fine-tuned,” Vinatieri said.

The Ravens believe they have the league's best kicking tandem, but neither Justin Tucker nor Sam Koch is going to the Pro Bowl.

A decade later, Blevins only had to watch Tucker swing his leg a few times before he was convinced the kid could become an NFL kicker. He has often compared Vinatieri and Tucker over the years, noting the similar way they explode into the ball.

“Having Doug in common and knowing some of the details of Adam’s story, how we’re all kind of connected through Doug, I was already a fan of his but having that connection made me even more a fan,” Tucker said.

Tucker studies a small group of other kickers, always with the thought, “I want it to look like that when I kick the ball.” He particularly admires Vinatieri’s ability to make excellent foot-to-ball contact again and again, no matter the conditions.

When the Ravens played the Colts in the preseason last year, Tucker sought Vinatieri out to pick his brain for several minutes.

“I was glad I did,” he said.

It’s amazing to consider, but Tucker was in first grade when Vinatieri broke in as a rookie with the New England Patriots in 1996. He was a middle schooler when Vinatieri made his most iconic kick, a 45-yarder in the snow and wind to tie the “Tuck Rule” playoff game between the Patriots and the Oakland Raiders in 2002.

Now, Tucker is a six-year NFL veteran himself, yet there’s no end in sight for the man he calls his “sports hero.” Since Vinatieri turned 40, he’s made 141 of 156 attempts, a 90.4-percent success rate that easily eclipses his career rate of 84.5. He’s made 22 of 27 attempts from 50 yards or longer in that span after rarely trying kicks of that distance earlier in his career.

During his unit meeting Wednesday morning, Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg asked anyone age 22 or younger to raise his hand. Three players did.

“He’s been kicking longer in the NFL than you’ve lived in this world,” Rosburg told them.

“Automatically, people assume that once you reach a certain age, you’re not able to kick a 50-yard field goal,” Rosburg said. “Well, that’s not the case with Adam. He’s a remarkable man.”

Colts coach Chuck Pagano marvels at the energy Vinatieri brings to his daily work, despite the fact he’ll turn 45 three days after Christmas, older than four NFL head coaches.

“Unless you see it firsthand, you really can’t have an appreciation for how hard this guy works,” Pagano said.

Vinatieri’s efficiency is perhaps helped by the fact that he kicks indoors for eight home games a year, but his late-career performance is still remarkable, adding to the consensus view that he’ll join Andersen, George Blanda, Lou Groza and Jan Stenerud on the short list of placekickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Tucker has a ways to go, but many believe he’s gifted enough to join that group as well. This summer, NFL Network analyst and longtime scout Gil Brandt raised eyebrows by ranking Tucker the greatest kicker in league history, one spot ahead of Vinatieri.

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The starting tight end was honored to earn an award that has deep ties to Baltimore through the late Colts head trainer.

Tucker has backed up that praise with another stellar season, making 29 of 32 attempts, including five of seven from 50 yards or longer. He hasn’t missed since October and currently ranks as the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Fans looked askance Tuesday when he wasn’t selected as a Pro Bowl starter.

“Oh gosh, yeah,” Stover said when asked if Tucker could go down as an all-time great. “He’s got the athletic ability and all the pieces around him. He just has to stay healthy.”

Vinatieri agreed, adding that the key to long-term health is vigilant maintenance. He spends more time in the training room and in soft-tissue therapy than he once did, all in a quest to make sure “the little things don’t become big things.”

When asked what it would take for him to kick at this level for another decade or two, Tucker did not hesitate. “That’s simple,” he said. “Take it one kick at a time. My grandfather had great advice for me when I was in high school. He said, ‘Justin, just kick the damn ball.’ Keeping it simple has worked out pretty well for us.”

For all of Tucker’s remarkable accuracy, fate has yet to steer him to an indelible kicking moment on par with Vinatieri’s “Tuck Rule” field goal. If he arrived for a playoff game and the field were blanketed in white, would he find that scenario exhilarating?

“In this kind of crazy way, yeah,” Tucker said. “When you’re battling the elements or the field or an away stadium where it’s loud, all of those things in some strange, serendipitous way make you lock in that much more acutely. It’s an opportunity to show how good you feel you are.”

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