Why the Vikings took the wind: Bold strategy pays off in win over Rams

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Over the course of the 15 months they've called TCF Bank Stadium their temporary home, the Minnesota Vikings have left little to chance when it comes to understanding the tricky wind patterns caused by the stadium's unusual east-west orientation. Kicker Blair Walsh and punter Jeff Locke have diagrams of the wind currents in the stadium. The Wednesday before each home game, they make the 20-minute drive from the team's complex in the Twin Cities suburbs to the stadium for a kicking session. Last Wednesday, Walsh kicked 60 balls in similar, but less severe, wind conditions to the ones in place Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.

It wasn't until pregame warmups, though, that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer realized the wind would be prominent enough to change game strategy.

"Blair was kicking into the [west] side of the stadium," Priefer said after Sunday's 21-18 win over the Rams. "He was trying from 50 [yards], and it was barely getting over the crossbar."

Sunday was a pleasant day in the Twin Cities, with temperatures above normal and in the high 50s. AccuWeather had predicted winds of 10 to 20 mph out of the south-southwest, but when the winds shifted to come out of the west, they turned into a significant factor in the game.

Neither the Vikings nor the Rams attempted an extra point or field goal into the west end of the stadium. The Rams passed up a 33-yard extra point try after Todd Gurley's touchdown run and chose to go for two, even though the game was still in the first quarter. Then, when the Rams had the wind at their back in the second quarter, kicker Greg Zuerlein drilled a 61-yard field goal. That event, in particular, signaled to Vikings coach Mike Zimmer that strategies had to change.

"I didn’t think [the wind] was going to be [a big factor], but when he kicked that 60-yarder, the wind was going good," Zimmer said. "They took the wind in the fourth quarter, and they ended up kicking the field goal [from 53 yards to tie the game]."

So when the Vikings won the coin toss in overtime, Zimmer did something that no team has done since the New England Patriots against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 24, 2013: He chose to take the wind and kick off, betting on his defense and gambling that the Vikings would get the ball before the Rams scored a touchdown.

"I just felt like both teams were going to get a possession as long as we didn’t give them a touchdown there," he said. "I figured them going against the wind, they weren’t going to get it."

The Vikings forced a quick punt. Marcus Sherels returned Johnny Hekker's 63-yard line drive 26 yards to the Vikings' 49, tiptoeing down the sideline for extra yardage. Adrian Peterson gained 21 yards on the drive, and with the wind at his back, Walsh drilled his second straight game-winner from 40 yards out.

Players lauded the decision for Zimmer's show of faith in the defense. Priefer praised his boss's move, saying he'd endorsed it when Zimmer ran it by him. And Walsh, who's spent as much time studying the wind patterns at TCF Bank Stadium as anyone, took solace in the inside knowledge the Vikings have acquired about the temporary home where they're now 9-3.

"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,' Walsh said. "I’ve said this all along: We can make this stadium our home-field advantage."