The Atlanta Falcons' efforts to spook the Minnesota Vikings with 1998 flashbacks completely backfired.
Prior to Sunday’s game, Atlanta honored longtime kicker Morten Andersen, who infamously booted Minnesota out of the NFC Championship game after its magical 15-1 season.
Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon responded with a rendition of the “Dirty Birds” dance -- the 1998 Falcons’ iconic strut -- after scoring a touchdown, and Minnesota earned its first eight-game winning streak since, well, ’98.
Behind brilliant playcalling by Mike Zimmer and his suffocating defense, the Vikings flustered Matt Ryan, the reigning MVP, and held the prolific Falcons offense to nine points in a big-boy victory, 14-9 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
While a storybook season or another classic heartbreaking moment -- like ‘98 -- isn’t a guarantee, one thing is: this Vikings team is very, very, very hard to beat.
Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes was at his best Sunday, holding two-time All-Pro receiver Julio Jones to a measly two catches for 24 yards. He was targeted six times.
In fact, Rhodes, who shadowed Jones for most of the game, was such a threat in the secondary that the Falcons superstar only caught one pass for 13 yards while Rhodes was covering him. The other reception was a quick screen pass that saw Jones bounce off Mackensie Alexander for a gain of 11.
Jones was seven days removed from a 253-yard performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If Rhodes isn’t the best lockdown corner in the NFL right now, who is?
Jason GetzJason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME
Case Keenum was a steady presence again for Minnesota’s offense. Just when it felt like the Falcons had a chance to swipe momentum away from the Vikings, Keenum would connect with a receiver for a clutch third-down conversion, albeit not without holding onto the ball for almost 10 seconds while skyrocketing blood pressure in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
November’s NFC Offensive Player of the Month was flawless after halftime. He threw for 127 yards and a touchdown on 13-for-13 passing for a perfect 158.3 rating in the final two quarters, finishing the game with 220 yards, two touchdowns and an 83.3 completion percentage. It was Keenum’s first perfect half since he was a freshman at Houston in 2007.
That makes it four straight weeks of Keenum recording a passer rating above 100 and a completion percentage above 70 percent, which is unsurprisingly the best streak in his career.
And yes, he’s starting next week.
One of the stranger coaching decisions we’ve seen all year benefited the Vikings in a big way. With the Falcons driving into Minnesota territory late in the fourth quarter and behind 14-9, the Vikings defense stopped wide receiver Taylor Gabriel four yards short of the chains on third down at the 27-yard line.
Needing a touchdown to take the lead with five minutes to play, almost everyone watching the game expected Atlanta to go for it on fourth down. After all, they were successful on a fourth-and-2 in the first quarter.
But Falcons coach Dan Quinn elected to kick a field goal. Matt Bryant missed the 45-yarder, handing the ball back to Keenum and the Vikings offense to seal the victory. And by the way, Bryant was 7-for-7 on field goals between 40-49 yards heading into that attempt. A perfect kicker missing a field goal in a key moment? Sounds familiar…
10 -- Atlanta had 10 chances to extend a drive on third down. The Falcons converted just once. A team that had scored 95 points in its previous three games combined was kept out of the end zone, and Ryan broke his streak of 30 consecutive games throwing a touchdown.
Ten is also the amount of wins the Vikings own, good for a four-game lead in the division and, oh, the No. 1 seed in the NFC. If Minnesota can win three of its final four games, this 2017 season would go down as the second-most wins in franchise history, behind, of course, 1998.
THEY SAID IT
"They were happy in the locker room but they understand that we really haven't done anything yet." – head coach Mike Zimmer
"Anytime you're successful, I think that breeds confidence. I think we trust each other." – quarterback Case Keenum
“Mentally, you got to be ready. With Julio, I was up all night just thinking about all the routes he runs, how he gets off the jam, I was thinking about everything.” -- cornerback Xavier Rhodes on the matchup with Julio Jones
Jason GetzJason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota’s trip around the highly competitive NFC South continues with a noon matchup next week against the 8-4 Carolina Panthers, who are coming off a 31-21 loss to New Orleans. Hear that sound? That’s Everson Griffen licking his chops at the opportunity to bull rush former teammate Matt Kalil.