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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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Eliminated from playoffs, Wizards hope to make gains in other ways

Eliminated from playoffs, Wizards hope to make gains in other ways

The Wizards arrived in Orlando with dual goals, to make the play-in tournament and to use the extra games to develop their young players. Now that they are eliminated from playoff contention, the second one has come fully into focus.

Really, it was their most important goal all along. Though they had an opportunity to make the postseason, and publicly stated their hope of qualifying, they had no illusions of their chances, especially with Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans opting not to go. 

Surely they wanted to do better than they have so far. With their loss to the Pelicans on Friday night, the Wizards have lost all eight of their games in the bubble: five regular season games that count and three others during their warm-up exhibition schedule.

It was been an ugly showing in terms of wins and losses, no doubt. But the returns in the player development department have been solid. 

"Coming down here, that was our goal: get involved in the play-in game. We didn’t reach that, but we also had other goals to develop and keeping getting better and keep playing the brand of basketball we want to play," head coach Scott Brooks said. "We’ve done a lot of good things."

Troy Brown Jr. and Thomas Bryant have made the most of the experience. Brown is averaging 16.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists while handling more ball-handling duties than he usually does. Bryant has been a force on both ends, averaging 20.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three (5.0 3PA).

RELATED: 5 TAKEAWAYS FROM WIZARDS LOSS TO PELICANS

The rest of the team has been a mixed bag. But young players like Jerome Robinson, Isaac Bonga, Moe Wagner and Admiral Schofield are getting more minutes than ever and are being allowed to play through their mistakes.

The mistakes, though, could be less forgivable than they appear. Brooks dropped a reminder of another reason why the Wizards feel their time in Orlando is valuable.

"Our job is to keep evaluating before next season starts who’s going to be with us and who’s not," Brooks said.

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Next year, the Wizards will have some collection of these guys but whomever is kept will be asked to perform under more pressure, for a team with bigger goals. Once Beal reunites with John Wall, it will be playoffs or bust.

The guys who will return need to work the kinks out now because the coaching staff and front office will have no choice but to be less lenient in their decisions. Barring a trade, Bryant should be back and installed as an important piece. He understands what he is preparing for.

"It’s difficult because everyone wants to win," he said. "But sometimes you’ve gotta look at the bigger picture of how things are going to work out."

The Wizards will now get their toughest tests yet with their final three games in Orlando all coming against teams with top-10 records in the NBA. They see the Thunder, Celtics and Bucks to close things out.

There may not be much on the line in terms of the standings, but the Wizards' young prospects will get to try their hand at the league's best. Whether they can leave the bubble with a victory is now a real question.

"This is my rookie season and I want to finish strong. Hopefully we can win a game," Rui Hachimura said.

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It's been fun, but the NHL should not stick with the 2020 playoff format

It's been fun, but the NHL should not stick with the 2020 playoff format

This was going to be the year to experiment. No matter what, the 2020 postseason was going to be different. The coronavirus dictated that. The NHL should be applauded for thinking outside the box and trying different things this year, but when the league looks forward to the next season and beyond, let's not get nuts.

The 2020 postseason format has been great given the time we are living in and the adjustments that had to be made, but no, the NHL should not adopt this postseason format going forward, regardless of how fun it has been.

Let's be clear, the regular NHL's playoff format is bad. This is in no way a defense of the nonsensical divisional format which sets up the same matchups over and over and over again and punishes teams in good divisions. A wild card format so complicated you can't explain it to a casual fan? Having the two best teams in a division play in the second round even if they are the two best teams in the conference? Blech. It's terrible. The 2020 postseason format, however, is not a good alternative.

RELATED: POSSIBLE PLAYOFF OPPONENTS FOR CAPS COMING INTO FOCUS

Look, I get it. The best-of-five series are fun! The best-of-seven series can feel drawn out by comparison. In a best of five, every game feels really important!

When the NHL was presenting its plan for the 2020 postseason, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about why the league elected not to shorten some of the playoff series to best-of-five as well and he said the players advocated not to do that so as not to cheapen the Stanley Cup. It takes 16 wins to win the Cup. Period. Even in a pandemic.

The NBA used to have best-of-five series in the first round and that made sense because a lot of those first-round matchups were garbage. The NBA does not have nearly the same level of parity as the NHL and the top teams almost always advanced with little drama at all. The first round of the NHL playoffs is fantastic and full of upsets. There's no reason to fast-forward through those series and play fewer games because those series are compelling.

OK, so keep the four-round, best-of-seven format. What about a play-in best of five series?

First, you can't have 24 teams out of 31 (soon to be 32) reach the postseason. For a league that wants its fans and players to care about an 82-game season, having 24 teams make the playoffs renders the regular season nearly meaningless. The only reason the NHL extended the postseason out to 24 teams this year is because the league canceled the end of the regular season and those bottom teams did not have a chance to make a final push for the playoffs like we see every year. There's no reason to extend the field in a normal season.

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While there are few who would advocate expanding the playoffs to 24 teams, there is a case to be made for adding one or two more teams per conference and having a play-in. Even that, to me, is a step too far. When the league expands to 32 teams, exactly half of them will make the playoffs. Do we really need more than that? It's easy to get excited about that prospect now in the midst of the postseason when the level of play is at its best and interest is at its peak, but let's think about the real dog days of the season in January and February. Would devaluing the regular season by adding more teams to the playoff make those January and February games when the season starts to drag more fun to watch or less? We all know the answer to that question.

And, by the way, all of the support to change the playoffs is a reaction to the qualifying series. We haven't seen what this postseason will look like when the playoffs actually get started. Will the round-robin teams end up at a disadvantage when they face off against teams that already played in a do-or-die series? Will injuries become even more rampant in the always grueling postseason because of those teams playing an extra round? It certainly seems like the proponents of adopting the 2020 postseason format are all being quick to declare this a success before seeing how everything ultimately plays out.

The best-of-five series are fun, but this year is different. It's OK to let 2020 be its own success and move on. The only thing the NHL needs to do is get rid of the awful divisional format, take the top eight teams from each conference and re-seed after each round. This year is different. Let's not pretend we need all these changes when life returns to normal.

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