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Walsh kicking up a storm in Minnesota

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Walsh kicking up a storm in Minnesota

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Adrian Peterson has been a threat to score from anywhere on the field this season, the kind of performance that makes a fan hold his breath every time he touches the ball.

Blair Walsh hasn't been quite that dynamic. But as soon as the Minnesota Vikings cross midfield, they know they're in his range. And the rookie kicker has been so good that no breath holding has been necessary.

Walsh was named NFC special teams player of the week on Wednesday after he kicked five field goals, including three of 50 yards or more, in a victory over the Rams. He hit from 50, 53 and 51 yards to tie an NFL record for most field goals of at least 50 yards in one game.

``I love him,'' Peterson said. ``Ever since training camp, I've seen him kick a 60-yard field goal. Maybe 65, 70 (in practice). I mean, this kid is pretty good. He's been big for us all season. Whenever it's 50-plus, I'm thinking, `It's good.'''

That's a lot of faith to have in a kicker who struggled as a senior at Georgia. But the Vikings saw some mechanical issues that they thought they could fix, so they invested a sixth-round draft choice in Walsh and then said goodbye to rock-solid veteran Ryan Longwell in favor of the unproven rookie.

It's hard to imagine it turning out much better. Walsh is 29 for 32 on field goals this season, including a perfect eight for eight on kicks of 50 yards or longer, which is an NFL record. His 117 points are a franchise record for a rookie, surpassing Randy Moss's brilliant first year in 1998. His 47 touchbacks also are a franchise record and the fourth-best total in the NFL this season.

``I don't have time to reflect on it or look back,'' Walsh said with a shrug. ``I'm a firm believer that if you get too high on yourself you're going to set yourself up for a hard fall.''

The Vikings have relied almost exclusively on Peterson to move the ball on offense this season. Their pass offense is ranked last in the league and quarterback Christian Ponder has had an incredibly difficult time making big plays through the air. When the offense sputters, as it often has, Walsh has been there to bail them out time and again.

His latest rescue job came at the expense of his more celebrated rookie classmate Greg Zuerlein. He doesn't have a cool nickname like Zuerlein's ``Legatron'' - Blairwolf is the closest he's come to liking a suggestion. But he certainly has the leg. Walsh drilled kick after kick, including a 51-yarder with 5:31 to play that essentially ended any hope of a Rams comeback.

``It's unbelievable,'' Ponder said on Wednesday. ``For us as an offense to just cross a certain threshold on the field and know that there's a good chance of the ball getting put through the uprights and getting some points on the (board) is big for us. It takes a lot of pressure off of us. The guy's done an unbelievable job.''

Perhaps as important as his big leg, Walsh has a strong mental approach that has allowed him to avoid the crunch-time struggles that many kickers experience.

``His approach mentally has been terrific and it's shown on the field,'' coach Leslie Frazier said. ``He's got ice water in his veins when it comes to making clutch kicks and doing the routine things as well. The fact that he's very coachable has been a plus for us.''

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and assistant Chris White worked in the offseason to tweak Walsh's delivery, smooth out his routine and try to instill more consistency in his approach to get him out of the funk that plagued him as a senior at Georgia when he missed 14 of his 35 attempts.

``You have to keep locked in the whole game,'' Walsh said. ``Good or bad, I have a rule where I take about five or 10 seconds to reflect on what happens. Then I let it go and get on to the next kick.''

If the Vikings (8-6) are going to make the playoffs, Walsh is likely going to have to make a few more big ones. They play at Houston on Sunday against the stingy Texans defense, then host rival Green Bay in the finale.

His performance thus far has earned Frazier's faith to run him out there in any situation.

``We weren't afraid we would be in a situation where we were putting ourselves on a shorter field,'' Frazier said. ``We felt very confident that once he went out there, it was a very good chance that he would make the kick and he did.''

NOTES: LT Matt Kalil missed practice on Wednesday because of an illness. ... DE Brian Robison (right shoulder) did not practice. Frazier said it was too soon to say if he would be ready for Sunday. ... Peterson was given the day off to rest.

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Cavaliers clamp down on Pitt

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USA TODAY Sports Images

Cavaliers clamp down on Pitt

PITTSBURGH -- No. 1 Virginia allowed just seven points in the first half and secured the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title outright with a 66-37 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Freshman guard De'Andre Hunter came off the bench to lead the Cavaliers (26-2, 14-1 ACC) with 14 points in a game that didn't take big offensive efforts from Virginia's regulars. Of the five starters, only guard Ty Jerome exceeded his season average with 13 points.

The game was never competitive, as Virginia started on an 8-0 run and Pitt didn't make a field goal until Jared Wilson-Frame hit a 3-pointer at the midway point of the first half.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett rested most of his regulars in the second half. Reserve Nigel Johnson added 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting.

Parker Stewart led Pitt (8-22, 0-17) with 12 points, all on 3-pointers. Pitt had next to no presence inside. The Panthers were outscored 28-8 in the paint and out-rebounded 36-24. Seven of Pitt's 11 made field goals were from beyond the arc.

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

The Caps could not shake Buffalo for two periods, but a dominant finish on Saturday helped them pull away for a 5-1 win. Here's how they finally put away the Sabres.

A quick start

Strong starts go a long way towards helping a team in the middle of a slump. It's a confidence boost for a group in desperate need of one and the Caps got that boost on Saturday from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov used his wheels to zip in behind the defense and score just 50 seconds into the game. Washington led 1-0 at the end of the first, just the second time in 19 games they have held a lead after the opening 20 minutes.

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Andre Burakovsky snapping a second period slump

It looked in the second period like the Caps were caught trying to protect the lead again, but Andre Burakovsky woke the team back up with his incredible highlight end-to-end goal. It really looked like Buffalo was going to tie the game at one, but instead, Burakovsky extended the lead to two. Going end to end the way he did shows a player who is starting to play with some confidence, something Burakovsky has lacked for much of the season.

Ovechkin's two-goal third period

Buffalo would not go away. Sam Reinhart got the Sabres on the board just 14 seconds into the third period and suddenly the Caps found themselves in a one-goal game again. But Ovechkin ended any hopes for the comeback as he struck in the top corner of the net on the power play from the office. He would later add a deflection goal to extend the lead to 5-1, giving a scuffling Washington team the dominant win they so sorely needed.