The same formula continues to work for the Vikings: A balanced offensive attack that takes advantage of whatever scheme the defense is using — being careful to avoid critical mistakes — and using big plays on offense to take away possession.
After a poor first half in Atlanta that ended with the Vikings trailing 20-12, the offense kicked into gear, regaining the lead quickly in the second half and allowing the defense to hawk the ball.
When it was finished, Randy Moss (five catches, 81 yards) and Moe Williams (11 rushes, 71 yards) each had two touchdowns and the defense had three turnovers, two sacks and two safeties in a 39-26 win over the Falcons to improve to 5-0 before their bye week.
It didn't come easily in the first quarter.
On its first possession, Atlanta started in a strong running formation with two tight ends, then passed with Doug Johnson finding Quentin McCord for a 33-yard play-action pass. Two plays later, T.J. Duckett put together a 13-yard charge up the middle, but the Minnesota defense stiffened and forced a 34-yard field goal from Jay Feely to put Atlanta up 3-0.
The Vikings offense picked up one first down, but when Moss dropped a third-down pass on the numbers it forced a punt.
The play-action worked again on the Falcons' first down of their ensuing series. The fake sucked up safety Brian Russell, leaving Denard Walker one-on-one with Peerless Price. The pass was good for 47 yards to the Minnesota 31-yard line. Again, the defense stopped the Falcons once they were in scoring position, and this time Feely connected from 33 yards for a 6-0 Falcons lead halfway into the first quarter.
The Vikings followed with completions of 7 and 13 yards to Nate Burleson and Moss, but the offense stalled there. However, when the defense also stopped Atlanta without allowing a first down, the Vikings were finally gaining in the battle for field position.
Gus Frerotte and company set up at their own 36-yard line and picked up a gritty first down. Needing 10 yards, Frerotte threw a screen to Williams, who put his head down and bulled his way for 12 yards. One play later, Frerotte found Moss for 17 yards, and on the next second down Frerotte found Moss again for a 32-yard touchdown and a 7-6 lead with 13:35 to play in the first half.
The defense continued its intense play, and the teams exchanged punts, but the Vikings remained in the lead for field position. Atlanta started its second drive of the quarter at its own 6-yard line, and on second down linebackers Henri Crockett and Greg Biekert got to Johnson in the end zone for a safety and a 9-6 Vikings lead.
After the free kick, Burleson found an opening trailing underneath Moss for a 52-yard gain on the first play of the possession. The drive ended there on an Ed Jasper sack, and Aaron Elling came on for a 32-yard field goal and a 12-6 lead with 8:06 to play.
From there, it was all Atlanta for the rest of the first half. Duckett opened the Falcons' next series with a 55-yard run that had a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked on from Corey Chavous. On the next play, Warrick Dunn followed with an 8-yard TD run to put Atlanta back on top, 13-12.
It wouldn't end there for the Falcons, either. When Keith Newman started the Vikings' next drive with a sack and the Vikings went three-and-out, the Falcons took over after a punt on their own 44-yard line. On third down, Johnson found Price for 23 yards. On the next third down, Johnson found tight end Brian Kozlowski for 10 yard and another first down. Finally, facing third-and-goal from the 7-yard line, Johnson found Price getting separation from Denard Walker at the goal line and zipped a touchdown pass for a 20-12 Atlanta lead with 10 seconds left in the half.
The adjustments made at halftime — specifically a focus on controlling the line of scrimmage in the running game and using passing game in a more balanced attack — paid big dividends in the second half. The teams exchanged punts to open the second half, but an interference call on the Falcons for impeding a fair catch by Keenan Howry set up the Vikings in Atlanta territory at the 45-yard line.
It was as dominating a drive as any in the game for the Vikings. Williams began with an 18-yard run, setting up a 20-yard misdirection pass to Onterrio Smith. On second-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Frerotte went high for Moss, but the receiver was flagged for pushing off in the right side of the end zone. On the next play, Frerotte went high for Moss in the left side of the end zone, and the receiver made a spectacular catch and foot placement to get the 16-yard touchdown. As close as Moss' feet were in bounds, on the two-point conversion attempt rookie Smith made a play with just as much awareness. Taking a shovel pass from Frerotte, Smith was hit hard by Keith Brooking but extended the ball just past the plane of the end zone as his momentum carried him backwards. The two-point conversion was good, and — despite a lackluster first half — the Vikings were tied 20-20 and looking to keep momentum on their side.
It happened when the defense used a holding call and a sack by Kenny Mixon forced a punt after only one first-down pickup by the Falcons.
The Vikings struck big on the first play on their next series with a 51-yard pass to Kelly Campbell down the left sideline to the 26-yard line. Rushes of 9 yards by Williams and 6 yards by Chapman put the ball on the 11-yard line, and Williams did the rest. He took a handoff looking for a dive over the left guard but, seeing a cutback lane to the right, Williams bounced it outside and then squared his shoulders to the goal line for an 11-yard touchdown and a 27-20 Vikings lead with 2:39 to play in the third quarter.
The defense shut down Atlanta again — and the offense followed suit in keeping the momentum rocking in the Vikings' favor. It had the look of determination and succeeded.
A 7-yard reverse to Campbell started the drive, followed by a 12-yard pass to Burleson. A flea-flicker that Frerotte launched to Moss went through the receiver's hands in the end zone, but on second down Smith burst up the middle for a 28-yard run and followed that with rushes of 6 and 1 yards. At the 5-yard line and staring down third-and-3, Williams finished off the drive with a 5-yard run and a 34-20 Minnesota lead.
Claiborne continued the second-half defensive domination with an interception off the deflection on Duckett. But on the next play, Frerotte tried to close the game out with a pass to Moss in the end zone, but when Moss was hit before the ball arrived and it bounced off of him, Keion Carpenter got the interception.
The momentum switch wouldn't last long. Backed up to his end zone and facing third-and-9, Johnson dropped to pass and needed a hold in the end zone to get the pass away, bringing out the flag and a safety for a 36-20 lead with 11:38 to play.
The Vikings used three straight running plays to take time off the clock and punted back to the Falcons. After three consecutive plays of at least 10 yards and moving the ball inside the red zone, Dunn coughed up the ball on a hit by Ken Irvin and Claiborne recovered in the end zone.
The Vikings were content to run the clock again and leave it up to their defense. After they punted to the Falcons — who had gains of 17 yards and 24 yards sandwiched by a 10-yard Johnstone sack — Brian Russell intercepted a pass off the helmet of Brian Williams. Russell returned it 31 yards before lateraling to Williams, who brought the ball to the 11-yard line.
Doug Chapman and Smith continued to work the clock, and the Vikings settled for a 24-yard field goal and a 39-20 lead with 2:52 remaining.
Atlanta got another chance and scored its only points of the second half as the Vikings played back and allowed gains of 10, 8, 15 and 9 yards before an 8-yard pass touchdown pass to Jimmy Farris with 1:43 to play in the game.
That brought the Falcons to within 13 points, but it was too little too late. The Vikings moved to a perfect pre-bye record of 5-0 with the 39-26 win using a balanced attack on offense and big plays on defense to end yardage-gaining drives by the Falcons.
After a light week of practice this week and the weekend off, the Vikings will be preparing for three straight home games against the Broncos, Giants and Packers while trying to continue their unbeaten start against potential playoff teams. More of the same domination from their offensive line will help, as will big defensive takeaways, which they have gotten.
It's a formula that works in 2003, so expect the Vikings to stick with it — no matter who is at running back or quarterback the rest of the way.
Moss, Williams, Defense ... 39-26 Win
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