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When was the last time Patriots special teams had an afternoon as bad as it did on Sunday? 12.08.15 at 8:30 am ET
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Bill Belichick was 'really proud' of his team following Sunday's win. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

It isn’t every day that Bill Belichick‘s Patriots have a bad outing on special teams. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Over the last several years, the Patriots special teams has become an absolutely integral part of the success of the franchise. Dating back to the early days of Bill Belichick, there was an emphasis on special teams, and the work of specialists like Troy Brown and Adam Vinatieri made a sizable difference in the success of the franchise. Going forward, those names became part of a strong lineage that continues to this day with the likes of Stephen Gostkowski, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater.

That’s why the moments of unquestioned failure on the part of the Patriots’ special teams are few and far between. That was one of the reasons why their performance against the Eagles in defeat Sunday was so surprising. New England was unable to execute on two of three onsides kicks (that included an odd-drop kick by Nate Ebner), had one punt blocked and had a punt returned 83 yards for a touchdown by Philly’s Darren Sproles.

“It was very disappointing. We have a lot of guys who take a lot of pride in that phase of the game,” Slater said after the loss. “Obviously, tonight was unacceptable.”

On the heels of the muffed punt from Chris Harper the week before that played a part in the loss to the Broncos, it was a tough pill to swallow for a team that takes such pride in its special teams play. But it got us wondering: When was the last time New England’s special teams had such an unfortunate turn of events in one afternoon? We had to go back more than five years to find the game: Nov. 7. 2010 against the Browns in Cleveland.

That game was a poor one all around for the Patriots, who managed just a pair of touchdowns while Cleveland’s Peyton Hillis ran for an astounding 184 yards on 29 carries in the 34-14 for the Browns. And while there were several notable takeaways from the game, including the fact that Eric Mangini claimed victory over Bill Belichick, the fact that there were a few special teams breakdowns played a role in the defeat.

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Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Bill Belichick, Matthew Slater, Rob Gronkowski
Record-setting Stephen Gostkowski doing everything he can ‘to stay in the groove and keep rolling’ 10.30.15 at 9:18 am ET
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Stephen Gostkowski has been the picture of perfection this season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Stephen Gostkowski has been the picture of perfection this season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — The time is quickly approaching to consider Stephen Gostkowski as one of the best kickers in NFL history.

On Thursday night, he connected on his 25th and 26th consecutive field goals, dating back to last season in the Patriots’ 36-7 romp over the Dolphins as wind-blown Gillette Stadium. In the process, he set a new franchise record for most consecutive field goals, passing Adam Vinatieri‘s 25 in a row in 1996-97.

Gostkowski has been flat out perfect this season, converting all 28 extra points and nailing all 17 field goals, including a remarkable 52-yarder Thursday in which he played the wind like a PGA Tour pro, drawing it 10 yards from right to left through the uprights in the first half.

“That was into the wind, and it was blowing straight to the left and it was super windy,” Gostkowski said of the 15 MPH crosswinds kicking into the north end of the stadium. “Kicking into that open end is really tough. Sometimes you’re at the mercy of when the wind’s blowing. I probably aimed it out more than I wanted to but you’ve just got to trust that you know that the wind’s blowing enough to pull it back. Right when I hit it, I felt like it had a really good chance.

“It’s kind of funny one of the [Dolphins] was like, ‘He missed it! He missed it!’ Then all our guys [yelled back], ‘Nah, he didn’t!’ So it was pretty cool. That’s about as tough a kick as you’re going to get out here, when the wind is gusting like that in the open end. There’s just nothing knocking the wind down so it affects the ball a lot more.”

His coach was impressed.

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Read More: Adam Vinatieri, New England Patriots, Stephen Gostkowski,
5 things you have to know about Colts: Indy a massive underdog against Patriots 10.12.15 at 12:59 pm ET
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Andrew Luck has watched Matt Hasselbeck lead the Colts to a pair of wins.  (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Andrew Luck has watched Matt Hasselbeck lead the Colts to a pair of wins. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Five things you have to know about the Colts, who host the Patriots on Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

1. With Andrew Luck sidelined, they have gotten good play out of backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

The 40-year-old Hasselbeck, who took over after Luck went down with a shoulder issue, has started the last two games and has done a good job managing to wring just enough out of the offense to allow the Colts to escape with a pair of wins. In his two starts, Hasselbeck is 48-for-76 (63 percent completion rate) for 495 yards and three touchdowns, with no picks and a passer rating of 95.0. (Through the first three games, Luck was 65-for-116 for a 56 percent completion rate, with 753 yards, five touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 65.1.) It has to be taken with a grain of salt because the wins were relatively narrow victories over Jacksonville and Houston, but Hasselbeck’s steadiness and consistent play the last two weeks has allowed Indy to climb just over .500 entering this game. It’s likely that the Colts will do whatever they can to keep the Patriots guessing this week when it comes to who will be under center at the start of Sunday’s contest, but Hasselbeck might be the first Indy backup quarterback in 20 years to show that he can do more than just hold a clipboard. (For what it’s worth, Indy released quarterback Josh Johnson on Monday, which likely is a sign that one or both of the Luck/Hasselbeck combo is feeling better.)

2. Hasselbeck isn’t the only veteran who has helped the Colts offense through a rough patch.

In his first season with Indy, 32-year-old running back Frank Gore (76 carries, 325 yards, 3 TDs) has provided the bulk of the yardage on the ground. Meanwhile, 34-year-old receiver Andre Johnson (13 catches, 128 yards, 2 TDs), also in his initial season with the Colts, has also seen action as a complementary pass catcher, augmenting the work of youngsters like the speedy T.Y. Hilton (a team-high 27 catches, 382 yards) and Donte Moncrief (24 catches, 278 yards, 3 TDs). The positional grouping won’t remind anyone of Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison, but it’s provided just enough offense over the last few weeks to lift the Colts to three consecutive victories. (One more quick note on the Indy offense: the Colts are 31st in the league in giveaways with seven interceptions and five fumbles. In all, Indy is 31st when it comes to turnover ratio at minus-7. Not a good sign when you are facing a New England team that’s tied for fifth overall at plus-5.)

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Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Andre Johnson, Andrew Luck, Frank Gore
Why Patriots reportedly extended kicker Stephen Gostkowski when they did 07.15.15 at 3:45 pm ET
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FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 18:  Stephen Gostkowski #3 of the New England Patriots kicks a 21 yard field goal in the second quarter against the Indianapolis Colts of the 2015 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Stephen Gostkowski reportedly signed a contract extension on Wednesday. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski signed a franchise tender on March 6, paying him $4.59 million for the 2015 season, which would have been the second-highest salary for a kicker all-time.

After Wednesday, the Patriots and Gostkowski could not negotiate a new contract during the season and he would become a free agent after next season.

With the 31-year-old being one of the better kickers in the game — connecting on 35 of his 37 field goal attempts for a career-high 94.6 percent mark, leading to his third Pro Bowl selection and a second-team All-Pro honor last season — he would seemingly get heavy interest from other teams next offseason for top dollar.

With that in mind, the Patriots reportedly extended Gostkowski with a four-year deal worth about $17 million on Wednesday.

Gostkowski will be paid in the ballpark of $4.25 million each of the next four years (according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss), which is still the highest in the league, but it could have been even more if the Patriots didn’t extend him now. The team will save at least $314,000 this year with his new deal and if they were to have franchised him again next season, that number would jump 20 percent and would have been $5.33 million.

It’s also worth noting, extra points will be moved back to the 15-yard-line, so having a kicker as dependable as Gostkowski is, will be even more important than ever.

Many will point out the Patriots moved on from Adam Vinatieri at similar point in his career, but they aren’t the same situation. Vinatieri wasn’t brought back after his age 33 season and things were different then because the Patriots likely had Gostkowski on their radar via the draft and also Vinatieri was two years older than what Gostkowski is now.

While the Patriots are paying their kicker a fairly expensive amount, long-term it will likely turn out to be a financially smart move with kickers’ value expected to rise with the new rule changes.

Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Stephen Gostkowski,
Some history behind Patriots and franchise tag 03.02.15 at 1:30 pm ET
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Adam Vinatieri is the only player who has been hit with the franchise tag twice by the Patriots. (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Adam Vinatieri is the only player who has been hit with the franchise tag twice by the Patriots. (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

A few notes as we all wait for the 4 p.m. deadline on the franchise tag:

On four of the eight occasions the Patriots hit someone with the franchise tag, they did it on the last day of the window: Wes Welker (2012), Adam Vinatieri (2005), Tebucky Jones (2003) and Vinatieri (2002). The Welker announcement came just prior to the deadline.

Three of the eight tags ultimately led to contract extensions with the Patriots: Logan Mankins (2011), Vince Wilfork (2010) and Vinatieri (2002). Wilfork’€™s offseason came at the end of the tumultuous few months for the defensive lineman, who was strongly against the idea of being tagged. He eventually acquiesced, and that set the stage for a new five-year deal that made him the highest-paid nose tackle in the league.

In addition, on three occasions, a player played that year under the franchise tag, and then departed as a free agent the following year: Welker (2012), Asante Samuel (2007) and Vinatieri (2005). In retrospect, it was clear that few players wanted to get out of town faster than Samuel. He held out for most of the offseason and into the summer, eventually signing his tender on Aug, 27. He left as a free agent the following offseason –€” he was in Philly at a press conference announcing his signing with the Eagles less than 18 hours following the start of free agency the next year.

And two players were tagged and then traded: Matt Cassel (2009) to the Chiefs and Jones (2003) to the Saints. While a few different scenarios could play out between now and the end of the offseason if one of the Patriots is tagged between now and the deadline, this is probably not one of them.

Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Asante Samuel, franchise tag, Logan Mankins
Adam Vinatieri: ‘It starts with Coach [Bill] Belichick, obviously he is a mastermind at getting game plans’ 01.19.15 at 12:03 am ET
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Adam Vinatieri missed his only field goal attempt of the game, a 51 yarder in the first quarter. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Adam Vinatieri missed his only field goal attempt of the game, a 51-yard attempt in the first quarter. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — Spending nine seasons with the Patriots, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri knows what winning is like, and what it takes to be successful.

After advancing a round further in each of the last three seasons, the Colts are close, but not quite over the hump of reaching the Super Bowl, as they were blown out, 45-7 in the AFC championship game Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

When asked what the Patriots do to be so successful — reaching their sixth Super Bowl in 14 seasons, and playing in their fourth straight AFC title game, Vinatieri named two people — Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

“Ultimately it starts with Coach Belichick,” said Vinatieri. “Obviously he is a mastermind at getting game plans. Obviously the skill level on that team, they have a lot of great players. A guy like Tom Brady, if you have him as your quarterback you’re going to win a lot of games. Across the board they played exceptionally well offensively and special teams, not only today, but all season long and they have a good team.”

As for the 2-2 start for the Patriots this season, and many people doubting the Patriots and Brady, Vinatieri was never a guy to believe all that.

“When you have a coach like Bill Belichick and a quarterback like Tom Brady it’s never really over,” he said. “They are clearly a very, very good football team. You’re not the No. 1 seed in the AFC by playing bad football all season long, so any team and every team has a hiccup occasionally throughout the course of a season so whatever they were saying early they outgrew that for sure.”

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Adam Vinatieri, Bill Belichick,
Most memorable Patriots-Colts games of Tom Brady era 01.17.15 at 3:10 pm ET
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Jonas Gray ran for 201 yards and four touchdowns in the Nov. meeting between the two teams. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Jonas Gray ran for 201 yards and four touchdowns in the Patriots’ win over the Colts in November. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

On Sunday evening, the Patriots will face the Colts in the AFC championship game. These teams are quite familiar with one another, and though the intensity of the rivalry may have waned when Peyton Manning played his final game for Indianapolis in the 2010 season, the game should prove to be an exciting one. Since 2001, when Tom Brady made his first start against Manning, the Patriots have edged the Colts in 12 of 17 meetings, outscoring them 545-401 in that time.

Brady guided the Patriots to wins against the Colts in his first six tries, but Manning followed that up with a little streak of his own, recording four victories in the next five meetings. During his last start as a Colt, Manning lost to the Pats and helped spawn a five-game New England win streak that stretches back to 2010 and is still alive. In the three games Brady and newcomer Andrew Luck have squared off, the Patriots have not scored fewer than 40 points.

In the teams’ matchup this season on Nov. 16, little-known running back Jonas Gray was the star. After noticing that using Gray in the run against Indianapolis proved just about unstoppable, the Patriots did it all game. All four of Gray’s touchdowns came from inside the 4-yard line, but he compiled 201 total yards throughout the course of the game on 37 attempts. Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright each added a receiving touchdown and the Patriots recorded 503 total yards in the 42-20 victory.

Here are the most memorable games between the teams since Brady took over.

10. Nov. 18, 2012: Patriots 59, Colts 24

Andrew Luck‘s first tilt against the Patriots could have probably gone better. The rookie quarterback had led his team to a 7-3 start to the season, but New England proved to be too much for him to handle. The Colts jumped out to a 14-7 lead in the first quarter, but from then on, New England took over. The Pats held Indianapolis to 10 points over the remaining three quarters while they put 52 more points on the board. The 59 points tied a franchise single-game scoring record.

Tom Brady was 24-for-35 for 331 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions while Luck had 27 completions in 50 attempts, 334 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns — and a sack.

Julian Edelman and Gronkowski each recorded a pair of touchdowns, including Edelman’s 68-yard punt return. Brady found both Gronkowski and Wes Welker seven times for 137 yards and 80 yards, respectively.

9. Nov. 7, 2005: Colts 40, Patriots 21

After six losses to Brady, Manning finally got his first win against him in 2005. Injuries to important players on the Patriots as well as a perfect Colts team that was only getting better spelled an unfortunate outcome for the back-to-back Super Bowl champs.

Manning finished 28-for-37 for 321 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne each had nine receptions for the Colts for 128 yards and 124 yards, respectively, combining for three touchdowns. The Patriots also allowed 132 rushing yards and surrendered two touchdowns to the run game, giving Indianapolis 453 total yards.

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Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady

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