EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — If the NFC divisional playoff game on Sunday between Minnesota and Dallas comes down to a big kick in the final minutes, Vikings fans can take solace that they have one of the most reliable units in the game.
Kicker Ryan Longwell, holder Chris Kluwe and long snapper Cullen Loeffler have been working together for four years and have painstakingly honed a routine that never changes, no matter how big the game or how big the kick.
Longwell has made 26 of his 28 attempts (92.9 percent) this season, easily the highest percentage for kickers with more than 20 attempts.
“That’s a huge plus,” Vikings coach Brad Childress said. “You know where he’s just about good from, you know what the environment’s going to be like. … They know that field. They know the spots on the field. Great professional, and his makes and attempts speak for themselves this year.”
Cowboys fans? They definitely have more reasons to be nervous.
Shaun Suisham was signed out of desperation just three weeks ago after kicker Nick Folk couldn’t shake a case of the yips. Quarterback Tony Romo, who famously botched a hold that cost the Cowboys a playoff win over Seattle in 2007, reluctantly returned to holding duty only a month ago, leaving long snapper L.P. LaDouceur the only mainstay in the crucial trio.
Suisham is in his third tour with the Cowboys. He spent most of this season with the Redskins, making 18 of his 21 kicks for Washington. But he missed two in a 7-6 loss to the Cowboys, then was dumped after missing a 23-yarder that would have beaten the Saints.
No longer willing to hope the youngster Folk snapped out of his funk — he missed 10 kicks this season — the Cowboys signed Suisham after a tryout on Dec. 22.
“Unfortunately, I missed three field goals,” Suisham said at the time he was signed. “There isn’t anybody out there who’s perfect. I feel like I should be. But I certainly am not hanging my head or lacking in confidence because I missed a few kicks this year.”
He isn’t the only one. There have been a rash of missed kicks in big situations this season, including three in the first round of the playoffs last weekend. New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, Cincinnati’s Shayne Graham and Arizona’s Neil Rackers all missed important tries. Only Rackers’ Cardinals survived to the next round.
Longwell was watching with empathy.
“I’ve always shuttered for my 20-something years of kicking, even back to junior high, when people use the term ‘chip shot,'” Longwell said on Wednesday. “Unlike a golf ball that’s just sitting still, there’s a lot of moving parts to get a kick to go through. I never consider anything a chip shot, especially when the game is on the line. There’s a lot of pressure.”
Longwell has made at least 80 percent of his kicks in 11 of his 13 NFL seasons and has topped 83 percent in nine of those years. He has made 15 of 21 attempts (71.4 percent) in 11 career playoff games.
The key, Loeffler says, is consistency.
“One of our little slogans that we joke about is we want to be almost boringly consistent,” Loeffler said. “When we run on the field and run off the field, people get the same thing every time. Almost to the point where we kind lull people to sleep. ‘Oh it’s the field goal team coming on to the field, we’ve got this.'”
Longwell rarely kicks with a tripod in warmups, preferring instead to have Loeffler snap it to Kluwe for the hold, just like in the games. He doesn’t have any whacky superstitions, just a clear picture of what’s on the line with every kick.
“Points are crucial this time of year and when you sign up to do our job you realize it’s the A or the F,” Longwell said. “There’s no C grade in kicking a football. It either goes through or it doesn’t.”
Suisham has rebounded nicely from his abrupt exit from Washington. He has made four of his five field-goal attempts in three games for the Cowboys, including both of his tries last weekend in the playoff win over Philadelphia.
But Dallas coach Wade Phillips didn’t exactly give him a glowing endorsement on Wednesday.
“Yeah, the field-goal kicker has come through for us,” Phillips said. “Like I say, he’s missed one, but he’s hit them all solid. So I feel good about him.”
AP Sports Writer Jaime Aron, in Irving, Texas, contributed to this report.