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Waiting to board the jetliner Sunday in the Twin Cities, which would take me to Detroit for media preview days of the Detroit Auto Show, I strained to see a television monitor across MSP Airport’s gate area. It was cold and unforgiving, and I could only watch until I saw Blair Walsh’s field goal give the Vikings a 3-0 lead over Seattle.
In line behind the pilot, I coaxed him to give us periodic updates about the game, and he assured me he would. When he informed us it was 9-0, I realized two more Walsh field goals in the mid-40-yard range had given the Vikings the 9-0 lead and a legitimate shot at upsetting the Seahawks at bone-chilling TCF Bank Stadium.
A group of us fellow auto journalists stay at a motel out near the Detroit Airport on our annual pilgrimmages to the Detroit Auto Show, avoiding the incredibly high cost of downtown hotels near Cobo Hall, and settling for the convenience of being within shuttle’s-reach of the airport. I was going to hustle to the shuttle and get to the motel in time to watch the final minutes, but when I saw a group peering at some tv sets in an airport lounge, I stopped, too. There were 10 minutes left. Seattle had gone ahead 10-9, so I had to stay there and watch to the finish of the NFC Wild Card playoff game.
I was disappointed to see Adrian Peterson continue to run into crowds in the line of scrimmage, never finding an opening. And more disappointed when Cam Chancellor caught Peterson on one of his precious few productive runs and wrench the ball loose for a fumble. But it was heartening to watch Teddy Bridgewater lead the Vikings down the field for their final try. If the cold stopped Peterson and Russell Wilson, Bridgewater was outshining the brilliant Wilson on this day.
A couple of great passes to Kyle Rudolph, and the Vikings got down close enough to try for a touchdown. But a touchdown wasn’t necessary, because a short Matt Walsh field goal would win the game.
A young fellow with his girlfriend standing nearby muttered to her, “Oh, no...This guy has been inconsistent all year.”
“No he hasn’t,” I interjected. “He missed a couple of extra points early, and one more later, but he’s been very accurate from longer range, like over 40 yards. The trouble is, all the media and the Vikings fans keep saying how bad he is. The guy deserves better.”
Then they lined up for the biggest kick of Walsh’s life. The wonderful dilemma of sports was all gathered up on that play, and I was fully aware that my unsought comment to the young man in praise of Walsh was more to prevent any jinxing of his kick, even though I was totally aware that he would be either a hero or universally scorned in Minnesota.
I admit I was conflicted about that Seahawks-Vikings game, because six weeks ago, I publicly predicted the Seahawks would win the Super Bowl, at a time when they weren’t even assured of making Wild Card status in the NFL Playoffs. But I had seen them demolish the Vikings 38-7 on December 6 at TCF Bank Stadium, and it appeared to me Seattle’s Best was not just pretty good coffee; it was Super Bowl-good. At that time, I declared Seattle would beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, even though the Steelers also were unsure of a playoff spot. Big Ben Roethlisberger looked like he had regained his prominence, and the Steelers, similar to the Seahawks, were heading for the playoffs with the kind of momentum that had slipped from the grasp of teams like New England, Denver, Green Bay, the Vikings – even Carolina.
Watching the final drama unfold amid that sea of breath-fog and freezing air, I naturally wanted the Vikings to win, but part of me said that my prediction held significant sway as well, because I still believe the Seahawks are the best team in the NFL. But for Blair Walsh’s sake, the Vikings could use the boost of a stunning victory.
Blair Walsh, by then, was lined up for his short, familiar leg swing. The snap was good, although the hold was not, because the laces were facing Walsh instead of away from him, but in that frozen moment, I was confident this one would be sweet..
Walsh’s foot struck the ball well. But from my distance away from the tv set, I didn’t see any object between the uprights. Then I caught a glimpse of the ball, flying straight and true – but about five yards wide to the left of the left upright.
Vikings players dropped to their knees in despair, or spun away in angry frustration at the missed kick, and the missed chance. Seahawks players also were less than unified in their glee.
I didn’t see Cam Chancellor, the defensive star, but I did see Richard Sherman, the long-haired defensive star who might be the most likely to celebrate. He was down on his knees as if kissing the turf in relief.
The Vikings lost the game, 10-9, and I turned to hustle toward the shuttle pick-up spot at Detroit Metro. I’m guessing the media and fan critics have been registering their disgust with Walsh’s miss, and I can see it getting to the point where the Vikings might even dismiss him and find a new placekicker.
Later, I watched Walsh in a post-game interview, and he simply said nobody else could be blamed, he blew it. The team depended on him to win the game, he had his chance, and he missed it, taking full responsibility. He seems like a genuinely good person.
All of those fans and observers who are free to bash Blair Walsh for the missed kick, and pin the whole reason for that 10-9 loss on him, should pause to consider one fact: The Vikings lost 10-9 to the Seahawks, but the Vikings own tally for the day was – Blair Walsh 9, Adrian Peterson-Teddy Bridgewater-all-receivers, and the rest of the team – nothing. Blair Walsh scored every point the Vikings scored on that frozen day at TCF Bank Stadium. But sometimes, as you’re about to board that shiny carriage, it can turn into a pumpkin.
Green Bay went out to Washington and beat the Redskins 35-18 in the other NFC Wild Card game, while in the AFC, Pittsburgh defeated Cincinnati in Cincinnati 18-16, in one of the ugliest games you’ll ever see, and Kansas City overran Houston 30-0. At Cincinnati, the Bengals had wrested control with 16 straight points in the fourth quarter to take a 16-15 lead with 1:50 remaining. Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict, who blasted Ben Roethlisberger crashed to earth on his right (throwing) shoulder, forcing him to try to play without being able to pass normally, then cost his team the game.
All the Bengals had to do was contain the Steelers through the last minute and a half, but Burfict came across the secondary as ace wide receiver Antonio Brown was leaping for a reception under heavy cover. Burfict hit him with a devastating, head-hunting blow that left him down and out, with a severe concussion, but amazingly with his head still attached.
As the officials helped revive Brown, and gave Cincinnati a critical 15-yard penalty, the Bengals crowded onto the field to protest, and got another 15-yard penalty. That left Pittsburgh in range, and Chris Boswell connected on a 35-yard field goal with 14 seconds remaining to give the Steelers the 18-16 victory.
That means Kansas City takes its hot streak to New England, while Pittsburgh, battered to the point we don’t even know if Roethlisberger can throw the football, must go play Denver.
In the NFC, Green Bay has to go to Phoenix and face the Arizona Cardinals, while Seattle plays at Carolina in what might be the game of the year, if not these specific playoffs. My head says Seattle wins, and Arizona wins, while in the AFC, I like Kansas City to knock out New England in a big upset, and while I hope Pittburgh can beat Denver, it would be a huge accomplishment with Big Ben questionable.
Then there was Monday’s Bowl Championship, and you’ve got to hand the big trophy to Alabama. The Crimson Tide overcame a very strong Clemson outfit in a high-scoring shootout that was exciting until Alabama won 45-40 at the finish.