The Vikings managed to do just enough to maintain their status as one of the NFC’s top playoff contenders as the Falcons’ free-fall continued.
Remember when the Falcons were 5–0, Dan Quinn was a Coach of the Year candidate, and Matt Ryan was a front-runner for NFL MVP? Yeah, us neither. Since that super-hot start in Quinn’s first season at the helm, Atlanta has been ruined by its own inefficiency, with a thoroughly unimpressive 10–7 victory over the Titans on Oct. 26 the team’s only win in its last six games. The Falcons’ losing streak stretched to four with Sunday’s 20–10 defeat at the hands of the Vikings, who finally beat a team with a winning record.
It’s perhaps unfair to denigrate Minnesota’s 8–3 record due to strength of schedule—after all, it seems like half the league came into Week 12 with a 5–5 mark, and you can only play who you play. That said, the Vikings probably won’t get a lot of credit for this win, because the Falcons are clearly falling apart.
Ryan threw two interceptions in this game, including his league-leading fourth end zone pick of the season when Vikings cornerback Terence Newman stepped in front of a pass attempted for tight end Jacob Tamme with 8:07 left in the third quarter. Ryan didn’t even throw his first pass until the fourth play of the second quarter because Minnesota controlled the clock so well. Of course, it helped when Falcons running back Tevin Coleman ended a long first-quarter run with a fumble, punched loose by linebacker Anthony Barr. Ryan ended his day with 22 completions on 31 attempts for 230 yards, a late touchdown and those two picks. After Ryan threw three picks in a 24–21 loss to the Colts last weekend, the recent inefficiency of the Falcons’ franchise quarterback and first-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan remains a glaring issue.
“I think it’s just being comfortable with different concepts and being asked to do some different things than we’ve done in the past,” Ryan said Friday of his work with Shanahan. “I feel like I’m getting better with it; I feel like the productivity’s there, just a few little things off. I think that’s it. I feel like it’s about getting comfortable with the few little things we’ve been off on. To me, it’s pretty close. And I feel like, when we get to practice, if we need to work on those things, we’re going to get them right.”
There’s a lot more work to do, and if things don’t change pretty quickly, the 6–5 Falcons could find themselves out of the postseason for the third straight year—not the outcome most expected after such a hot start.
The Vikings, on the other hand, managed to do just enough to maintain their status as one of the NFC’s top playoff contenders. Had they beaten the reeling Packers last Sunday, they might have established themselves as the team to beat in the conference outside of Carolina, but the better teams on their schedule have tempered expectations. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who’s been short on explosive plays in his second professional season, did have a reasonably efficient day, with 20 completions on 28 attempts for 174 yards, no touchdowns and one end zone interception of his own. It was the sixth time this season Bridgewater hasn’t reached 200 passing yards in a game, a group that includes four of his last five games. But as long as the team keeps winning, and Bridgewater stays in game-manager mode as coach Mike Zimmer would prefer, it’s all good.
And when Adrian Peterson runs as he did in this game—hard, with purpose and without mercy—it’s more than all good. Peterson finished with 158 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries, including seven carries on a 14-play fourth-quarter drive that ate up 8:26 of clock and led to the deciding field goal.
Minnesota’s estimable defense still needs to pass the test of an offense that forces it into a shootout. That certainly wasn’t the Falcons, but as the Vikings enter their stretch run against the likes of the Cardinals, Bears, Seahawks and Packers, we’ll see how often and how well they’re able to play it close.