When two teams are as familiar with one another as the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers are, games are typically fought down to the wire and often are decided by seven points or fewer. They know each other so intimately that they have a sort of shorthand to what each team does well. As such, the games tend to be incredibly physical and all points are at a premium.
With the intensity dialed up and a tight game being expected, the difference to winning and losing could come down to the foot of their kickers, making the special teams battle between Blair Walsh and Mason Crosby this week's playoff matchup to watch.
No two kickers could be as different in how their 2012 seasons have gone. The only thing the two have in common is that they both replaced veteran kicker Ryan Longwell – Crosby in Green Bay six years ago and Walsh in Minnesota this season. Aside from that, there is shockingly little similarity in what they've done this season.
Walsh was named to the Pro Bowl after scoring 141 points. He was the only kicker in the league to score 100 points on field goals, finishing with 105 points by making 35 of 38 field goals, including all 10 of his attempts from 50 yards and beyond. He showed the difference a dominant kicker can have on a team, not only putting the team in scoring position when they reach the opponent's 40-yard line, but also the benefit of being able to launch kickoffs. He had 53 touchbacks and frustrated return men often took kicks from six or seven yards deep in the end zone in hopes of breaking a return out of sheer exasperation from being taken out of the game. Not much more could have been asked of Walsh than what he delivered.
On the flip side of the coin is Crosby. He was the worst kicker in the league in 2012, by a long shot. Of the 31 kickers with enough kicks to qualify among the league leaders, six kickers (including Walsh) made more than 90 percent of their attempts. When it came to making 80 percent or more of their field goals, 26 of the 31 kickers accomplished that. Only two kickers made less than 70 percent of their field goals – David Akers (69 percent) and Crosby (63.4 percent).
Of his 33 field goal attempts, Crosby missed 12 of them. In kicks from 40 yards and beyond, he made just 11 of 21 attempts and, while Walsh was 10-of-10 from 50 and beyond, Crosby made just 2 of 9. Head coach Mike McCarthy lost faith in him – at times not attempting a long field goal and instead going on fourth-and-long situations because he didn't believe Crosby could succeed.
It would seem that this is a lopsided matchup that favors the Vikings, but the wild card in all of it is the weather. Walsh has never kicked in a game with a temperature less than 40 degrees. Forecasts predict a high in the mid-20s in Green Bay Saturday and, by the time the game starts at 7 p.m., the sun will have long since gone down and, along with it, so will the temperature. Crosby has spent six years in Green Bay and has played in some of the most brutal elements the NFL has to offer. That may turn out to be a leveling effect on what, at faced value, looks to be a one-sided competition.
Throughout the game, both teams are likely to have their fair share of scoring chances. If the defenses can dominate in the red zone, it will likely come down to Walsh and Crosby to provide the points their team needs to secure victory. In their first matchup, Crosby made three field goals that were the margin of difference in a 23-14 win. In the rematch, Walsh made three field goals, including the game-winner in a 37-34 win for the Vikings. Both kickers will likely be asked to do the same to lock down a win, which makes this critical battle between the two smallest players on the field in this win-or-go-home key matchup.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Fortunes on the kickers' feet
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