During the Vikings' four-game winning streak, it has seemed like every game has been bigger and bearing more significance. Today's game with the Atlanta Falcons could be the culminating moment of the regular season – a win will give the Vikings their first NFC North Division title since 2000 (back when it was still the NFC Central) and keep the team with a chance of locking down the No. 2 seed in the NFC for the playoffs.
Standing in their way are the Atlanta Falcons, who, at 9-5, are still very much in the hunt for a playoff spot. The Falcons have risen from being one of the worst teams in the league to a bona fide playoff contender in a very short span of time. The Falcons haven't lost back-to-back games all season and have been extremely strong at home. Fortunately for the Vikings, this meeting comes in the Metrodome and not in Georgia.
Clearly one of the big differences in the Falcons has been at quarterback. With Michael Vick in jail last year, the Falcons had a revolving door at QB that included waiver-wire pickups Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich. This year, however, rookie Matt Ryan grabbed the bull by the horns and made the job his. While his numbers aren't awe-inspiring – 3,146 yards with 14 TDs and nine interceptions – he has been everything Atlanta could have asked of a rookie QB and more. He is an excellent game manager who doesn't take sacks (just 14 through 14 games) and doesn't throw interceptions too often. He has a passer rating of 90.0, which just about any QB would be happy with. The key for the Vikings will be to generate pressure on him and force him to get rid of the ball. Last week, they rattled a veteran and MVP candidate in Kurt Warner. A rookie shouldn't be as difficult to shake up.
The Falcons are similar to the Vikings in that they rely heavily on the running game – even more so than Minnesota. While Ryan has thrown 389 passes this year, Atlanta has run the ball 496 times for 2,082 yards and 19 touchdowns. Leading the way is fifth-year pro Michael Turner. He spent his first four years as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego and finally got his chance with Atlanta. He has more than lived up to his big payday – rushing a league-high 332 times for 1,421 yards and 15 touchdowns. When he isn't carrying the ball, the Falcons have Jerious Norwood, who has averaged almost five yards a rush and had caught 33 passes. He is a short, solidly built fireplug of a runner who has deceptive speed. With Turner averaging about 24 carries a game, there isn't much room for anyone else other than Norwood to see time, so expect a heavy dose of these two throughout the game, as the league's top run offense faces the top defense at stopping the run.
If the Falcons have to pass, they have some big-play ability. In the middle of it all is Roddy White. He leads the team with 82 receptions – only four fewer than the top two Vikings receivers combined – for 1,310 yards and six TDs. He runs all the routes and has the speed to get deep, the size to take a quick slant pass and the strength to go over the middle. There have been times when Ryan has locked in on him to the point that he throws for 170 yards in a game and more than 100 of it comes from White. With White's emergence, Michael Jenkins has stepped forward as a solid No. 2 option. He has 42 catches for 644 yards and, when teams double-cover White, he becomes a main target. Also factoring into the mix is Harry Douglas. A third-round rookie, Douglas has come on of late and is averaging 15 yards per reception. Veteran Brian Finneran has been relegated to fourth-receiver duty. The Falcons have had very little production from the tight end position, where Justin Peelle leads the way with just 14 receptions.
The biggest improvement in the Falcons this year has been on the offensive line. It has led the way for Turner to compete for the league rushing title and allowed its rookie QB to be sacked an average of just once a game. They're far from household names, but have done an excellent job as a unit. Rookie Sam Baker of USC has stepped in at left tackle and done a very good job, but Jared Allen will be a big test for him. In the middle, the Falcons have 10-year veteran Todd McClure at center, flanked by guards Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl, in their second and third seasons, respectively. At right tackle, 10-year man Todd Weiner has been battling injuries and has been replaced by third-year man Tyson Clabo, who started 11 games last season. Aside from McClure, this is a very young group that has solidified as a unit and could be the cornerstone of the future for Atlanta's offense.
The Falcons don't have a star-studded defense, but have several playmakers. That starts up front, where John Abraham was named to the Pro Bowl as the starting right end. He is joined by 2007 first-round pick Jamaal Anderson at the other end spot and fourth-year man Jonathan Babineaux and Grady Jackson at the tackle spots. Jackson has been fighting injuries and could be replaced by seven-year man Kindal Moorhead at times Sunday. This is a group that has struggled to stop the run, allowing opponents to rush for nearly five yards a carry, but has been strong in putting pressure on quarterbacks. The veteran Vikings offensive line will have its hands full with this group, especially Abraham – who can change a game with one strong power rush.
The linebackers are strong and aggressive. They're led by Keith Brooking, who was moved back to the outside after playing the last season-plus in the middle. Brooking has good ball skills and the speed to cover backs and tight ends in the passing game. On the other side, Michael Boley in his fourth season and has blossomed into a consistent playmaker that makes the highlight reel pretty often. What has allowed the outside ‘backers to make so many plays has been the consistent performance of rookie Curtis Lofton, who has taken over the middle linebacker spot and made a lot of plays. This is a group that has quietly become a strength of the defense after being a weakness the last few years. They will be the unit designed to limit Adrian Peterson. If they can't get the job done, it could be a long day for the Falcons.
The secondary is an underachieving group that, while able to make plays, can be exploited at times. The cornerbacks are Dominique Foxworth and Chris Houston. Both are young and aggressive, but can be subject to getting burned on play-action passes and double moves. At the safeties, 13-year veteran Lawyer Milloy can still get the job done at strong safety and fifth-year man Erik Coleman has done a solid job at free safety. Both have plenty of experience and help make up for the mistakes that can be made by the young corners. In nickel situations, the Falcons have more young players in second-year man Brent Grimes and rookie Chevis Jackson. If the Vikings are to have a big play, it may come in the passing game over the top with the young corners.
The Falcons are a desperate team in need of a win to keep their playoff dreams alive. While a defeat won't completely crush their playoff hopes, it may put a dagger in it that would require several scenarios to play out in order for them to make up for a loss Sunday. But, with the Vikings having just as much to play for, this game will have a playoff atmosphere two weeks before they actually begin.
Falcons preview: Similarly built
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