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Vikings at Falcons: Five Game-Changing Plays

Looking back at the five most important plays from the Vikings’ big road win over the Falcons.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons
Pictured: Adam Thielen. Not pictured: anybody defending Adam Thielen. Because nobody can defend Adam Thielen.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s such a thing as flying under the radar while winning eight games in a row, the Minnesota Vikings have seemed to accomplish it. For most of the past two months, other teams have gathered headlines while the Vikings have accumulated victories.

In a way, I get it. The Vikings aren’t lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine. They don’t have fantasy football darlings that rack up 30 points a week. They don’t have the huge national following and household names that some 6-6 teams have.

What they do have is a championship-level defense, which was on display in a big way on Sunday in Atlanta. Julio Jones was held to 24 yards a week after blowing up for over 250. Matt Ryan had his lowest passing total in over four years. The Falcons were held to 9 points, which was the first time they failed to score double digits at home since 2014. Atlanta had 275 yards of total offense, which was their lowest output at home since 2013. The Falcons came into the game as the NFL’s most efficient offense converting third downs; they went 1 for 10 on Sunday.

The Vikings also have an offense that isn’t beating themselves and executes with ruthless precision when it matters most. The offense didn’t have their greatest performance of the season; Minnesota made it to the red zone only three times on Sunday. But the results were exactly what they needed: touchdown, touchdown, victory formation. Case Keenum found nine different receivers while throwing only five incompletions. They topped 100 yards rushing for the fourth straight week. While the Falcons couldn’t keep promising drives alive, the Vikings went 6 for 12 on third down.

Sunday marked 63 days since the Vikings last lost. Guess which game is being played exactly 63 days after Sunday’s win in Atlanta?

You guessed it: Super Bowl LII at US Bank Stadium. And now that the Vikings are the top seed, the road to Minneapolis in the NFC currently goes through...Minneapolis. Yes, there’s still a ton of football to be played between now and February 4. Yes, I realize that as a Vikings fan I shouldn’t even talk about such things because mentioning the big game is like saying Beetlejuice three times. Yes, I realize the last several times we felt this good about a Vikings team it ended an agonizing playoff heartbreak.

But for now—at least least for a few days—can we simply appreciate what this team has been able to accomplish for the past eight games? The Vikings are one more win away from finishing the toughest scheduling gauntlet in recent memory unblemished. We can all worry about the future in the future. For now, let’s just enjoy the ride.

And enjoy the five biggest plays from Sunday’s big win in the ATL.

Play 1: Vikings ball, 4th & 19 at the Atlanta 48. First quarter, 1:48 remaining. R.Quigley punts 46 yards to ATL 2, Center-K.McDermott, out of bounds.

That’s right—for the first time ever in this series, I’m including a punt!

For those of you that remember the “coffin corner” punter drill on old iterations of Madden, you know that this would have been worth 250 points. (Side note: that drill was SO hard. Getting the ball to fall in that little red corner was damn near impossible.) You can’t pin a team back much better than that. Special teams had been a sore spot for the Vikings in recent weeks, so it was nice to see Mike Preifer’s unit excel on Sunday. You need to be sound in all three phases to beat a tough team like the Falcons on the road, and that’s just what the Vikings were on Sunday.

With both offenses struggling to find their footing early in the game, this punt led to a quick three-and-out from the Falcons, which led to excellent field position for the Vikings on their next drive, which led to our next plays.

Play 2: Vikings ball, 2nd & goal at the Atlanta 2. Second quarter, 10:06 remaining. J.Sirles reported in as eligible. C.Keenum pass short right to J.McKinnon for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Before we get to the touchdown, we have address the two plays before it. First, the play to get them down near the goal line. After Latavius Murray had just converted on third and short, the Vikings snapped the ball on the next play with 16 seconds left on the play clock, catching the Falcons front a bit off guard. Murray did the rest.

The Tay Train rumbled down to the 2 yard line, and now it was Pat Shurmur’s time to shine in another goal-to-go situation. On first and goal, the Vikings were about as vanilla as you could be:

There was no pre-snap movement, no misdirection, and no gain. The Falcons stuffed Jerick McKinnon rather easily.

But on second down, Shurmur went into his bag of tricks for another bit of goal line magic.

With limited space to work with, offenses have to be creative near the goal line. Lining up in big sets, smashing into the line, and hoping to fall forward for a couple of feet works less and less against defenses that are constantly getting bigger and faster. After running such a standard issue play on first down, Shurmur confused the Atlanta defense by switching formations pre-snap. Keenum found Jet wide open (thanks to an assist from Kyle Rudolph that was totally not a pick play, I swear) and the Vikings were on the board for the first time.

When points are at a premium in a game between two evenly matched opponents, the difference between finishing a drive with 3 points or 7 points can be the difference in the game. That held true again on Sunday. The Vikings were on the right side of the difference thanks to more clever play calling from their Offensive Coordinator.

Play 3: Vikings ball, 3rd & 3 at the Atlanta 44. Third quarter, 4:26 remaining. C.Keenum pass short left to L.Treadwell to ATL 35 for 9 yards (G.Jarrett).

Laquon Treadwell sighting!

Down two late in the third quarter, the Vikings faced third and short in Atlanta territory but outside of field goal range. Despite being without Desmond Trufant and Brian Poole, the Falcons defense did a good job of keeping everything in front of them on Sunday. Keenum did miss a couple open targets downfield, but overall kept on taking what the Atlanta defense was giving him underneath. As has been the case for most of the season, Treadwell was not first in Keenum’s progressions. But the offensive line stymied the four-man rush perfectly, and Treadwell was able to hang on for the conversion.

The catch kept what would turn out to be a clock-chewing, go-ahead drive alive. Eight plays later, the Vikings took the lead and never looked back.

Play 4: Falcons ball, 3rd & 7 at the Atlanta 26. Fourth quarter, 14:08 remaining.(Shotgun) M.Ryan scrambles left end to ATL 27 for 1 yard (A.Barr).

Despite all the low totals the Vikings held the Falcons to on Sunday, there weren’t any real “splash” plays by the defense. They didn’t record a sack or force a turnover; they simply played four quarters of excellent defense. But I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one play from the D in this recap, so I chose an important stop that showed off all three levels of the “Zim Reapers.”

First, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter explode off the line, collapsing the pocket and forcing Ryan to step up despite facing only four rushers. Second, the secondary locks everything down, which means Ryan can’t throw despite escaping the original pressure. Finally, linebacker Anthony Barr stays home and makes a perfect form tackle to ensure that Ryan can’t scramble for a first down. The Falcons are forced to punt, and the closest they would come to scoring for the rest of the game was a missed Matt Bryant field goal.

Last year, the Vikings depended on their defense to make huge plays that weren’t sustainable week to week; it’s a big reason why they imploded down the stretch. In 2017, the Vikings are still heavily relying on their defense, but making plays like this is much easier to replicate.

Play 5: Vikings ball, 3rd & 4 at the Atlanta 43. Fourth quarter, 3:59 remaining. (Shotgun) C.Keenum pass short right to A.Thielen to ATL 21 for 22 yards (R.Allen).

Call the Falcons Justin Timberlake, because they can’t stop the Thielen.

Although Atlanta held Thielen to under five receptions in a game for the first time in 2017, nothing was bigger than his fourth and final reception of the day. On third down with the game very much in the balance, Thielen did this to C.J. Goodwin:

In lieu of flowers, the Goodwin family asks that you donate to the Goodwin Foundation for Broken Ankles in their son’s memory. May he rest in peace.

Instead of giving the ball back to Atlanta with a chance to win it late, the Vikings were in victory formation three plays later after milking the last five minutes off the clock. THAT’S how you close a game.

With only a trip to Carolina left in the arduous road trip, the Vikings have put themselves in great position as we enter the last quarter of the regular season. As always, we welcome your input on which of these plays had the most impact in the poll below. If you think we missed a few that should have been included, please add them in the comments.


What was the most important play from the Vikings’ win over the Falcons?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Quigley’s field-flipping punt
    (312 votes)
  • 8%
    McKinnon’s TD
    (149 votes)
  • 9%
    Treadwell’s third down conversion
    (171 votes)
  • 16%
    Barr’s big third down stop
    (292 votes)
  • 46%
    Thielen’s late catch
    (828 votes)
  • 2%
    Other (comment below)
    (40 votes)
1792 votes total Vote Now