Every NFL game is different. Factors come into play that leave their imprint on the outcome of games. That was the case Sunday in the Minnesota Vikings’ 21-18 overtime win over the St. Louis Rams, as the biggest factor for both teams may have been the wind.
Of the game’s 39 points, 33 of them were scored heading in the direction of the east end zone with a tailwind. The only score of the game that came into the wind, which was steady at about 20 miles per hour at game time and gusting to near 30 or more at times, was a first-quarter touchdown run by Todd Gurley. Even then, the Rams opted to go for two points instead of kicking a 33-yard extra point out of leeriness of what the wind might do – a point the Rams dearly could have used later in the game when it headed into overtime at 18 apiece.
When the wind was at a team’s back, everything was different. Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein kicked a 61-yard field goal, the seventh longest in NFL history and the longest ever against the Vikings.
“It was definitely having a huge impact on the game,” Vikings kicker Blair Walsh said. “You could see that when Greg hit a 61-yard field goal. He’s got a strong leg, but that one had room to spare.”
Walsh continues to add to his turnaround season. His overtime winner was the 15th straight field goal he made, the second straight game in which he provided the winning kick and he set a franchise record with his third game-winner in overtime.
Walsh credited the team policy of sending the specialists out to TCF Bank Stadium during the week to get in some extra work. They’ve done it in both of the last two seasons and Walsh said that investment paid dividends Sunday.
“I probably hit 60 balls down here on Wednesday,” Walsh said. “The wind was a little bit less than today, but it was very similar. I kicked that exact kick on Wednesday, so it was nice to come back out here and say, ‘Hey, I’m comfortable in this stadium.’ I’ve said this all along – we can make this stadium our home-field advantage.”
How telling was the wind factor Sunday? When the Vikings won the toss in overtime, head coach Mike Zimmer and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer opted to kick off after the Vikings won the overtime coin toss, even though had the Rams been able to make a big play for a touchdown, the game would have ended without the Vikings getting a chance to touch the ball.
“It was smart,” Walsh said. “I think it shows you how smart Coach Zimmer is and how smart Coach Priefer is to take that wind. It was making such a difference. Nobody attempted a field goal or PAT the other way. That kind of tells you something about how the offenses were moving and how the game flow was going. He was smart to take the wind in case we needed a long one.”
The Vikings defense, which didn’t allow the Rams to score a touchdown after the first quarter, took it upon themselves to make Zimmer’s decision hold up. Defensive end Brian Robison said players were lobbying to give St. Louis the ball because they knew they could make the plays needed to give the offense the field position it would need to win the game.
“It’s an opportunity where he has the confidence in us to go out there and get it done and we didn’t want to let him down,” Robison said. “We went out there and did what we had to do to get the ball back in the offense’s hands and win the game.”
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn echoed that sentiment, saying that he wasn’t sure that Zimmer would opt to kick the ball away and put the onus on his defense to make enough plays to make the gamble pay off. It did, as the Vikings got St. Louis off the field on three plays and gave the offense an opportunity to get in position for the game-winning field goal.
“It meant a lot to us that Coach Zim said that if we won the toss, we would give them the ball,” Munnerlyn said. “It showed the level of the confidence he had in us that he knew we could get the job done. That was a credit to the coaching staff because I’m not sure a lot of teams would have done that, knowing that if you give up a touchdown the game’s over.”
After the game, Preifer said that if a field goal was going to be attempted into the east end zone, he felt comfortable with an attempt from as far as 58 yards, but into the wind it would have to be an attempt from less than 50 yards.
Walsh was keeping an eye on the strength and direction of the wind all day and, for the second straight week, filed away information on missed field goals by his opposite number. Last week, Chicago’s Robbie Gould pushed a kick wide at windy Soldier Field. Today, Zuerlein did the same and Walsh held onto that memory as he prepared to attempt his game-winner.
“The only thing I took from (Zuerlein) was that when he pushed the ball right before his last make,” Walsh said. “Going out there I was like, ‘Hey, you know what? This wind is pushing the ball a bit right, but don’t overdo it.’ You kind of learn from him, just like I learned last week from Robbie’s miss.”
For Walsh, the last few weeks have been sweet redemption. Last season, he had the worst field goal percentage of any kicker with enough attempts to qualify for the league lead and had a brutal preseason in which he missed more field goals than he made.
With Sunday’s winner, he has made 15 straight and has made good on 19 of 21 attempts this season. For a while, he dreaded seeing the media, because they wanted to talk about his misses. Now they’re taking about his successes and, with the win, the Vikings are now tied with Green Bay atop the NFC North at 6-2 and have the confidence that they can continue to win with the same formula that has got them this far.
“This is what we’ve been playing for all year to get into this position,” Walsh said. “Everybody is doing their job – offense, defense and special teams. I’m just glad that I’ve been able to do my part at the end of games to be a part of helping us win.”