EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Winds are as much of Buffalo's reputation for football as wings are as the city's namesake food choice.
The Vikings return to playing home football games outdoors for the next two seasons has created some exposure to the elements already this season, and kicker Blair Walsh said readiness for Buffalo was reinforced by this week's practices.
"We had a deadly wind in our face, and it's good preparation for us and what we're going to see in the stadium," Walsh said. "They're a little famous for their bad winds. Hopefully it will be calm for us on Sunday, but we're prepared for it not to be."
While wind directly in the face can be unpleasant, crosswinds provide the biggest challenge for special teamers.
"In your face, you can at least drive the ball through it and keep it straight because it's not going to move it right or left, but crosswinds, you're dealing with accuracy issues more than anything, and I think wind-in-your face is more of just a length issue," Walsh said.
Minnesota (2-4, 0-2 NFC North) visits Buffalo (3-3, 1-1 AFC East) at noon (CT) Sunday, and will see three different Bills kickers.
Buffalo has entrusted field goals and points after touchdowns to veteran Dan Carpenter, who is 13-for-15 on field goals and good on all nine PATs this season. The Bills, however, also have Jordan Gay as a kickoff specialist and Colton Schmidt handling punting duties.
Gay is averaging 65.4 yards on 30 kickoffs with 23 touchbacks. Opponents have averaged 21.1 yards on seven returns. Schmidt is averaging 43.9 yards on 36 punts with a net average of 39.1. He's placed 12 inside the 20 and forced fair catches on 11.
"Interesting," Walsh said of the split duties. "I haven't seen it in the NFL in a while. They're all three doing a great job though, so you can't blame the Bills for that, and I think all three of them are talented enough to be in the league, obviously, and Carpenter's had some success. They're doing well on special teams now. It will be a challenge for us."
Some teams, including Detroit last week, have their punter handle kickoff duties, but Walsh said he enjoys handling field goals and kickoffs. Jeff Locke handles punting and holding duties for Minnesota.
Walsh is 11-for-13 on field goals and has put all nine PAT attempts through the uprights this year. Walsh is averaging 64.8 yards on 27 kickoffs and has had 23 touchbacks this season (kicks that result in touchbacks are credited as 65-yarders).
"I like it because it keeps me in the rhythm of the game," Walsh said. "I couldn't imagine kicking a field goal and not hitting a kickoff after it, so I think if you don't kickoff, it gives you a little more time to get more accurate on field goals and just focus on that swing, so there is an advantage to that, but I like the way I do it and the way the majority of the guys do it. You want to play as much as you can and help your team, and I feel like I do both at a high level so it's fun for me to go out there and kick."
Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said he prefers not to use a separate roster spot for kickoff, field goal and punting duties.
"No, I hate it. I don't like it at all," Priefer said. "I think what you lose is a core special teams player on game day. Now you have to dress four specialists instead three and to me, that guy is a quality, quality core special teams guy. I've never liked it. If you have to do it, you have to do it. To be honest, I think Carpenter is a really good kickoff guy, too. He's an outstanding field goal guy, they've got a young kicker that has a great leg and it works for them."
FORCING THREE-AND-OUTS: Speaking of punting, the Vikings have forced the fourth-highest percentage of three-and-outs by opponents this season. On 68 defensive series, Minnesota has limited foes to three plays before forcing a punt 19 times (27.9 percent).
The Jets moved into first place (from third) after Thursday's game, in which they forced punts after three plays on five of 10 Patriots possessions for a season total of 27 of 82 (32.9 percent). Denver ranks second at 31.7 percent (20 of 63), and Detroit ranks third at 30.6 percent (22 of 72).
Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said success early in the possession is a key to getting off the field.
"In order for us to be a good third down team you need to be good on first and second down where you're not always in third and short," Edwards said. "From that aspect of it, it all kind of parallels together. There are different aspects of each team, one team may be better at one aspect of the game whether it's running the ball, passing game, or whether it's in third down or whether it's down in the red zone. Each week is a different challenge and a different matchup."
Buffalo has had seven three-and-outs on 26 possessions (26.9 percent) in the past two games since Kyle Orton became the starting quarterback and had three possessions of three plays or less end in turnovers last week against New England.
FOURTH QUARTER PASS DEFENSE: The Vikings enter Sunday's game against the Bills with the league's stingiest passer rating by opponents in the fourth quarter. Minnesota has limited its first six opponents to 28-of-47 passing (59.6 completion percent) and one TD while recording four of its five interceptions in fourth quarters this season, translating to an opposing passer rating of 53.6.
That will be tested by Orton, who has a fourth-quarter passer rating of 113.6 by completing 20 of 30 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns. The rating is the fourth-highest in the NFL this season.
SUNDAY STATUS: Second-year Vikings LB Gerald Hodges has been ruled out this week, but veteran LB Chad Greenway is questionable.
A ribs injury, one for which time is the best healer, has sidelined Greenway for the past three games.
"There's not much you can do for it, unfortunately, so to me, it's the most frustrating injury I've had just because, what do you do, you sit around and wait for it to take care of itself," said Greenway, who was listed as fully participating in practice this week. **Click here*** *for the full injury report.
WEATHER:The temperature at Winter Park at the start of Friday's practice was 52 degrees Fahrenheit, with cloud coverage and a WNW wind of 15 mph. Sunday's forecast in Buffalo is partly cloudy with a low of 39, a high of 48 and a WNW wind of 13 mph.