The Vikings battled the Falcons on the road in a gritty, hard-hitting contest that was everything we expected. But the patient Vikings used long, sustained offensive scoring drives and tough, stingy defense to hold off the Falcons and beat them 14-9.
“I told the team I was proud of them—they battled. It was a grind,” Mike Zimmer told KFAN radio after the game. “Nothing was easy. I thought third downs were a big factor in this game today. [The Falcons] were known as a third-down team coming in. The other difference was that we scored touchdowns in the red zone.”
Some late drama was averted when Matt Bryant (who had three field goals on the day), missed a 47-yarder late to keep the Falcons from drawing to within another field goal of victory. But the Vikings offense then moved down the field, got into “the victory formation” and salted the game away.
The win is Minnesota’s eighth in a row (the first eight-game winning streak since 1998) and brings the Vikings to 10-2 and a four-game lead in the NFC North with four games remaining in the season. Next week the Vikings travel to Carolina to take on the Panthers in hopes of grabbing another win towards their postseason positioning and securing a tie-breaker advantage over another potential playoff team.
There were some calls for Case Keenum’s head in the early going, as Keenum missed a wide open Adam Thielen and had trouble connecting elsewhere with his receivers. Keenum took a few more sacks than usual, as he was holding the ball a bit longer than need be (although the downfield coverage by the undermanned Falcons defense had a hand in that). In the second half, Keenum threw the ball (out of bounds) once past the line of scrimmage when he should have run it. Keenum did not look like the player who had just won the Offensive Player of the Month award, but the Falcons defense were a problem.
But in the second half, Keenum looked more like himself. He had a near perfect half and finished with great stats: 25 of 30 for 227 yards, two touchdown passes and a rating of 120.4. Had the Vikings needed it, Keenum would likely have led the team to a third score, as the team finished in the red zone. It’s time to hold off the Case Keenum benching for another week.
The Vikings defense played another great game on the road, this time against a Falcons team that had scored an average of 28 points in their five previous games. Every time the Falcons moved up field, the Vikings defense stiffened, holding the home team to just three field goals. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was more than enough to position the offense to get the win. The leading tackler was linebacker Eric Kendricks (10 tackles that doubled or more the rest of the team), and the rest of the team turned the vaunted Falcons offense into a run of the mill one, giving up 312 total yards.
Offensive line gave up two sacks today—not many for most teams, but a little high for this one. They generally gave Keenum time when he needed it, but even more importantly opened up plenty of holes for the running game. Though missing right tackle Mike Remmers for a fourth game (and losing blocking tight end David Morgan early in the game to a concussion), the line battled a good defensive front. Head coach Mike Zimmer called them the star of this team and they continue to prove it.
The game featured the NFL’s best 3rd down offense (Atlanta) versus the best 3rd down defense (Minnesota)—you know, irresistible force meets an immovable force kind of thing. Well . . . the Vikings defense clearly won that battle. Despite an early PI by Mackensie Alexander that extended a drive on third down, the Vikings defense held the Falcons offense to just one first down of 10 third down attempts. That clearly was a major factor in the outcome of the game, and the Vikings will continue to lead the league in that sta.
Coming into the game everyone and their brother (and yours truly) talked about the Julio Jones versus Xavier Rhodes matchup. While Rhodes had help at times, he was primarily covering Jones, who last week had 12 receptions for 253 yards and two scores—and he shut down Jones to the tune of just two catches for 24 yards on two targets. The Vikings secondary did well on the other side of the field as well. Mohamed Sanu was matched up often with Trae Wanes and Alexander and others and at one time was on the sideline pleading with the coaches to give him the ball. He may have been right, as the 6-2, 210-pound Sanu started making his presence known in the Vikings secondary. But in the end, Sanu only caught one more ball than Jones (grabbing three on five targets for 43 yards). The Vikings secondary came up big in the game.
Latavius Murray is who we thought he was (or hope he was when they drafted him) and he showed it on the Vikings opening scoring drive of the first half. Murray showed the power runs up the middle in the scrum, and then demonstrated vision, shiftiness and great open field running (we won’t say speed) on a 30-yard run that set up Jerick McKinnon’s two-yard touchdown reception. On the day, Murray rushed 16 times for 76 yards and caught three passes for 21 yards. Murray, with his body shape and running style, is never going to resemble a Marshawn Lynch or Adrian Peterson, but his effort, power and growing confidence continue to help him move the pile and the sticks and contribute to the Vikings offense.
Should Be Ending
Zimmer challenge the special teams to be better this week and they responded. When punter Ryan Quigley wasn’t kicking the ball into the coffin corner (it bounced out of bounds at the Falcons two yard line), the coverage team was all over Falcons returners. Kai Forbath made his two extra points, even though one he kicked twice after a penalty and “doinked” if of the upright after the penalty on the first PAT. And return man Marcus Sherels had a nice kickoff return to the 30-yard line that gave the offense good field position. Every time the special teams was called upon, they responded—which was crucial in a close, low-scoring game like this one. They need to continue to perform as the Vikings march toward the postseason.
Penalties on the road. Last week in Detroit, the Vikings, as expected by some, experienced what it is like to play on the road in November/December and not always get the calls. More was likely expected on Sunday, and while the Vikings had six called for 51 yards on them, the Falcons had seven for 55 yards. Called on them—and those penalties on the Falcons hurt them in the first half. The Vikings should expect more of the same next week in Carolina, as it is part of the deal in this league. The Vikings must continue to play through them.
Long drives—we don’t always seem them out of the Purple. But the Vikings scoring drives were both lengthy and clock-eating successful ones. The first lasted nine plays for 533 to McKinnon, while the second one was 15 plays for 89 yards and a Kyle Rudolph touchdown reception (the Vikings longest of the season). Long scoring drives not only take time off the clock (the second one took 8:15 off the clock), they demonstrate excellent offensive execution and they are head coach Mike Zimmer’s preferred style of winning games. The final drive after the missed field goal was nine plays for 52 yards, which ended the game with three kneel-downs on the Falcons’ 12-yard line. Needless to say—as we head closer to the postseason, long, well-executed scoring drives by the Vikings offense, should NOT be ending.