The Vikings are 10-2, the top seed in the NFC and arguably the league’s most balanced team. Heading into Week 13, Minnesota was averaging 28.3 points per game in its nine victories; over the last month of the season — all wins — that average was at 33.4 points per game.
On Sunday in Atlanta, however, the Vikings had to rely on their defense, and their defense did not disappoint. When it was over, Minnesota had eked out a 14-9 win thanks to two Case Keenum touchdown passes and, perhaps more importantly, a defense that held Matt Ryan and the Falcons to a single field goal over four second-half drives.
Yes, Keenum,, was his usual efficient self; he finished 25 of 30 for 227 yards with two scores and no turnovers. Seriously, look at this:
But the Falcons’ defense played well for most of the afternoon, holding the Vikings to 3.4 yards per carry and allowing just one reception of more than 20 yards. Put another way: When you hold the league’s fourth-best offense to 14 points, you’ve done your job.
You’ve also done your job when you go on the road and hold the seventh-ranked offense to three field goals, which is exactly what the Vikings’ defense did on Sunday against defending NFL MVP Matt Ryan and a Falcons offense that was unstoppable a year ago, sputtered earlier this season as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian replaced Kyle Shanahan, but looked to be its old dominating self during the Falcons’ three-game winning streak that came to an abrupt halt on Sunday. From Weeks 10-12, in victories over the Cowboys, Seahawks and Buccaneers, the Falcons averaged 32 points a game, which is just off the 33.8 points per game they averaged during their Super Bowl run in 2016.
So what changed on Sunday?
On Minnesota’s defense, not much. The Vikings came into the game ranked sixth in defensive efficiency (eighth against both the pass and the run) — and when it was over, Ryan was held to 16 of 29 for 173 yards and no touchdowns, as the Falcons’ offense had just 275 total yards and managed one third-down conversion in 10 attempts. And though the Vikings didn’t register a sack, they got after Ryan, hitting him twice and forcing 12 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, with four coming courtesy of defensive end Everson Griffen, who had a theory for why the Falcons struggled.
“If they’re scared to throw the ball down the field, then they’re not going to score so many points,” Griffen said, according to the Pioneer Press’ Chris Tomasson. “They were scared of our rush. We affected him. We didn’t get any sacks, but we affected him in many ways. We got pressure in his face. We hit him. So that’s all you can ask.”
And even when the pass rush wasn’t getting to Ryan he looked uncomfortable in the pocket. That’s the only explanation for why he rushed a throw during the Falcons’ first drive of the second half, and instead of an easy completion and first down for Mohamed Sanu, the ball was instead ruled incomplete and the Falcons had to settle for a field goal. That would be the last time Atlanta scored on the afternoon.
Also not helping: The Falcons were penalized seven times for 55 yards and receivers dropped several catchable passes. Taken together, Atlanta, which came into the game leading the league in third-down conversions (48.1 percent), was no match for a Minnesota defense that led the league in third-down stops (preventing first downs 71.5 percent of the time).
“I thought we had too many third-and-7s,” Ryan said, via ESPN.com’s Vaughn McClure. “I think one of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn’t do a good job of that. They are a very good defense. We knew it was going to be tough sledding at times, but we’ve got to be more productive and put ourselves in better positions. When we get our chances on third downs, we’ve got to make some plays.”
A big reason the offense shuffled along was because of Julio Jones, who had a drop on the Falcons’ first offensive snap and finished with two catches for 24 yards even despite six targets. A week ago against the Bucs, Jones had 12 receptions for 253 yards and two scores. On Sunday, Xavier Rhodes, one of the league’s most physical cornerbacks, shut him down.
“Like I said in all my interviews before, Julio can get his,” Rhodes said after the game. “He’s going to get his catches, they’re going to try and feature him any possible way. We were just aware of it. I wasn’t on him all game. I was on him 90 percent of the game, but when I wasn’t, we still covered him.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan threw to Jones four times with Rhodes in coverage and only once did Jones make a catch. It went for 13 yards. The other catch came with safety Andrew Sendejo in coverage (it was the only time he was matched up with Jones).
No idea how long the Vikings’ social media person has been waiting to use this but well played nonetheless:
“Xavier did a great job [limiting Jones’ effectiveness], but all of our guys in the backfield did a great job; Trae [Waynes] and the safeties. We very rarely will say, ‘You got him,’ and it was just the way we felt we had to play to win this football game,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told reporters. “We know how great of a player he is, how talented he is, and it is important to try and take away some of the opponent’s strengths each week.”
In three games against Jones, Rhodes has allowed six catches for 69 yards.
As the old saying goes, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And the Vikings, who have won eight straight and nine of 10, head into the final month of the regular season with games at Carolina, home against Cincinnati, at Green Bay (and, possibly, Aaron Rodgers) and at home against Chicago. They’re one of just four teams whose offense and defense rank in the top 10 (along with the Rams, Eagles and Steelers), and Minnesota appears to be peaking at just the right time.
Another old saying: Style points don’t matter.
“We do what we have to do to win,” said wide receiver Stefon Diggs. “They all won’t be pretty, I promise you. I have seen a lot of ugly games and games with some ups and downs. But for us to fight and see the team that we have come together, everybody is grinding. We’re going in the right direction.”
Rhodes added: “The energy is out there, you can tell. Once we get a stop, the offense goes out there, and they make plays. Once the offense scores a touchdown, we go out there and feed off that energy, and we make big plays — get them off on third downs, a turnover, something. We just feed off each others’ energy. That’s a definition of a team.”
For all the talk about Carson Wentz and the upstart Eagles, or the possibility that Rodgers returns and wills the Packers to the playoffs, maybe the Vikings are the team the rest of the NFC should fear having to face come January.