November 26, 2015

The Atlanta Falcons' cozy playoff position vanished almost as quickly as the Minnesota Vikings' chance at a snug spot atop their division.

While the short-handed Falcons look to regroup from a trio of losses that have put their playoff chances in jeopardy on Sunday, the visiting Vikings will try to reignite their bid for the NFC North.

Minnesota (7-3) grabbed sole possession of first place with five straight wins and three consecutive Green Bay losses. The Packers, though, crashed the party with a 30-13 win over the Vikings last week.

It was a missed opportunity to pull away for Minnesota, which has a half-game lead atop the division following the Packers' 17-13 loss to the Bears on Thanksgiving night.

''I'm disappointed in our performance, but I'm not discouraged about our future,'' coach Mike Zimmer said. ''I still believe in this football team, and I believe in everything about us.''

Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's offense made the Vikings pay for an uncharacteristic eight penalties amounting to a season-high 110 yards.

While the offense was held to 13 points - its lowest since the season opener - Minnesota's defense coughed up a season-high 30 - well above the average of 16.2 the Vikings allowed during their winning streak.

That defense will have to regroup without starting safety Harrison Smith, who was ruled out of this contest Saturday due to a knee injury. Smith leads the Vikings with 54 tackles.

''We were out of sync, out of whack," said Adrian Peterson.

The NFL's leading rusher may have been the best indication of that as Peterson was held to 45 yards on 13 carries one week after running for 203 against Oakland. He did score a touchdown for the third straight week but also lost a fumble.

Minnesota ran for just 94 yards, snapping a streak of four consecutive games with at least 140.

The Vikings still control their own destiny with six games left and another shot at Green Bay in the Jan. 3 season finale. Atlanta (6-4) still does too, but a free fall has the Falcons in an undesirable position of a once 5-0 team in danger of missing the playoffs.

Atlanta has dropped three straight and four of five to fall far back of NFC South-leading Carolina and into the second wild card - one game up on Tampa Bay and Seattle.

Atlanta would join a short list of 13 teams since 1933 to miss the postseason after winning its first five games. The last two to fall short of the postseason after a 5-0 start were the 2009 Denver Broncos and New York Giants, who each finished 8-8.

''The bear is not loose here inside the building. I want to make sure we're really clear on that,'' first-year coach Dan Quinn said. ''We've got a really talented team and a coaching staff that really believes in these guys.''

The Falcons' last three defeats have come by a combined seven points, the most recent a 24-21 loss to Indianapolis in which Atlanta squandered a pair of two-touchdown leads. It was the Falcons' second straight loss at home after winning their opening three at the Georgia Dome.

Matt Ryan threw three more interceptions to give him six in the last four games, building the concern around Atlanta's franchise quarterback. Ryan's worst miscue was a pass from his own end zone straight into the arms of linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who scampered in for a 6-yard score to tie the game at 21 early in the fourth quarter.

''Those are the decisions we count on him like crazy for us," Quinn said. "For all those things he did in the game very well, that's one he'd like to have back.''

Some of Ryan's numbers suggest this season aligns with his first seven: a career-high 298.2 passing yards per game, a 65.5 completion rate and an 89.6 passer rating. However, he has 10 interceptions and has lost a career-high three fumbles - many of the turnovers coming in key spots.

There has been speculation about his health, even a local newspaper blogging a close-up photo of a brace on Ryan's left knee under his uniform.

''I'm 100 percent healthy,'' Ryan said. ''I think I've said this five or six different times now, and hopefully this will be the last time I have to talk about it: I've worn a brace on my left knee since I was a senior in college. Anybody who looks at a picture from 2008 (his rookie season) will see the same thing.''

Ryan will likely have to shoulder more of the offensive burden after the Falcons ruled out running back Devonta Freeman on Friday as he continues to recover from a concussion. Freeman, who is sixth in the league with 764 yards and has an NFL-best nine rushing touchdowns, will be replaced by rookie Tevin Coleman.

Minnesota won the last meeting 41-28 on Sept. 28, 2014, but the Falcons have won the last two in Atlanta.

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