A conservative game plan from both teams allowed the Minnesota Vikings to control a 14-9 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. In a close game filled with tension, the Vikings were able to hold on after a rocky start for the offense.
This win extends the Vikings winning streak to eight games and moves them up to 10-2, retaining their current position as No. 2 in the NFC pending the results of games later in the day.
Offensively, the Vikings were content taking shorter passes against a Falcons defense geared towards taking away the deep ball. With all the speed on the Atlanta defense, it makes sense that they trusted their players to stop screens but the Vikings preferred to test their ability to force missed tackles anyway.
For the most part it worked, and it served to set up both touchdowns for the Vikings – first to Jerick McKinnon and a second time to Kyle Rudolph.
It also happened to mitigate the pass rush of the Falcons defense, who had been abusing the offensive line throughout the game. Restricting Case Keenum’s propensity to take risk also ratcheted down the prospect of a turnover, too.
Before the final drive of the first half, a two-minute situation where the Falcons were happy to give up yardage in the middle of the field in exchange for time wasted, Keenum threw the ball 10 times for six completions and only 50 yards. Even with the free yardage on the failed two-minute drive, Keenum exited the half only averaging 6.5 yards per attempt.
That extremely conservative game plan led to a death-by-a-thousand-cuts style of drive, and both touchdown drives were nine plays or more.
On the Vikings’ final drive, an attempt to drain the clock with a small lead meant that Keenum was able to string together completion after completion, completing a second-half 13 completion streak to end the game after completing his prior two passes at the end of the first half for a 15 completion streak in total.
The former Los Angeles Rams quarterback ended the day averaging 7.6 yards per attempt on 30 passes with two touchdowns. Much of the yardage came after the catch, but the improvement in the second half nevertheless could stave off the possibility of Teddy Bridgewater returning to the field for at least another week.
Nevertheless, shaky play from Keenum meant running into opposing defenders in response to pressure in the pocket, as well as poor ball placement and a number of missed opportunities as Vikings receivers ran wide open with nary a look from their signal-caller.
Instead, reliance on the Vikings running backs dictated their ability to move the ball early on. Latavius Murray earned 76 yards on the ground (4.6 yards per carry) with Jerick McKinnon bringing the total to 100 yards on the ground from halfbacks. Clutch short-yardage running from fullback C.J. Ham also meant another critical third-down run for a yard to bring Vikings running backs to 101 total rushing yards.
Ham, McKinnon and Murray added another 54 yards through the air, which meant that running backs were responsible for 49.7 percent of their total running yardage.
McKinnon was also responsible for a receiving touchdown early in the game that put the Vikings up early. The young Georgia Southern running back had been relishing an opportunity to score in his hometown and celebrated with a version of the famous Dirty Bird, a touchdown celebration made famous by former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson.
One would imagine this running back performance meant solid play from the offensive line, but they were shaky all day, with pressure coming from both edges and particular from Rashod Hill — who filled in once more for an injured Mike Remmers — and missed blocks in the running game up front from Pat Elflein and Nick Easton. Elflein’s inconsistency all year showed up in this game in a big way, with the best and worst running plays featuring his effort.
Defensively, struggles from the normally stellar Xavier Rhodes didn’t result in an explosion of yards for Julio Jones (24 yards on two catches) but did lead to a number of big plays for the Falcons receivers regardless. The Vikings held up when the field compressed, but that still resulted in a set of field goals from the reliable Matt Bryant.
Those field goals kept the game close throughout the contest even without an appearance in the end zone for the normally explosive Falcons offense. Unfortunately for them, their luck ran dry on their final drive as Bryant missed a 45-yard field goal with the opportunity to close the gap to two points.
Minnesota may have lucked out there as it would have been wise for Atlanta to go for it on fourth-and-four from the Minnesota 27-yard line — had Bryant made the field goal, the Vikings would still have a lead as they entered the final drive to drain the clock, something they did anyway from a similar field position.
Atlanta had to rely on the running game to get their chunk yardage. Like the Vikings, they didn’t make gains on big plays. Despite not cracking off a big run over 15 yards, Devonta Freeman averaged 6.2 yards per carry. That was more efficient than Matt Ryan’s passing, as the Vikings reduced him to 5.8 yards per attempt.
Much of Freeman’s yardage — which includes seven in the air in addition to 74 on the ground — had to do with struggles from Eric Kendricks closing down on running backs. He also gave up significant yardage to Atlanta’s normally passable tight ends.
Atlanta’s inability to move the ball through the air or create explosive plays meant that the Falcons — who entered the game as the top team in the league in converting third downs — could only convert one third down of 10 attempts.
Pressure from the defensive line didn’t result in any sacks but did create a hostile passing environment for Ryan, who couldn’t overcome the pressure to complete many balls to his talented receiver corps.
With the Carolina Panthers coming up on the schedule, the Vikings can solidify their hold on a playoff spot, with a good chance to secure home-field advantage.