Vikings give away important game

The Vikings fumbled away the football and an opportunity to earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. The result of seven fumbles was a 24-17 win for Atlanta, 10 of those points coming off turnovers and another touchdown coming when two Vikings missed a fumble-recovery opportunity in the end zone.

The Vikings know how to give until it hurts during the holiday season.

Minnesota fumbled the ball seven times Sunday, giving four of them away to the Atlanta Falcons, and in the process gave away their hopes of securing a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a 24-17 loss.

With one game to go, the Vikings need a win next week or a loss by Chicago in one its next two games (the Bears host the Packers Monday night) in order to secure the NFC North title and thereby a No. 3 seed that would guarantee at least one home playoff game.

But all the scenarios likely wouldn't have been necessary if the Vikings hadn't lost four fumbles Sunday in the Metrodome – doubling the Falcons' fumble recoveries for the season (they were tied for last in the league four fumble recoveries through 14 games). It seemed every time the Vikings started to get an offensive push or get into scoring position, they gave it away.

"Bottom line, seven times (we) had the ball on the ground, lost four, three in plus-territory," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "Before you talk about any other statistics, that can't happen if you're going to have a realistic chance to win the game. I don't care about explosive plays. I don't care about defense (or) four out of five three-and-outs. I don't care about any of that stuff. You've got to take care of the football."

Tarvaris Jackson was credited with three fumbles – losing two, including one on a handoff exchange with Adrian Peterson, who fumbled the ball twice himself, losing one. The first fumble of the game, however, was pinned on the special teams when Bernard Berrian muffed a punt that the Falcons recovered to set up their second touchdown.

Mixed in between all the turnovers was an offensive effort that was moving the ball. Jackson completed 22 of 36 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 98.5 rating. He also ran the ball eight times for 76 yards, tying the yardage total of Peterson, who rushed 22 times for a 3.5-yard average. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe led the way with the second-most productive day by a Vikings tight end – catching seven passes for 136 yards and both of the team's touchdowns.

Even with all the turnovers, Minnesota still had an opportunity to send the game to overtime, but their bad fortunes and self-inflicted mistakes resonated deep into the second half. Late in the third quarter, Falcons QB Matt Ryan ran for the goal line and fumbled before crossing the line. Darren Sharper had an opportunity to recover the ball, but tried to scoop it on the run and missed it. So did Cedric Griffin, who tried to dive on the ball. Instead, offensive lineman Justin Blalock got the fumble recovery for a touchdown that extended the lead to 24-7.

After battling back to 24-17, the Vikings had the ball with more than two minutes to play, but after picking up one first down they couldn't get a crucial completion or two pass interference penalties that they lobbied for. Instead, their own turnovers put them in the position of hoping Green Bay can beat Chicago on Monday night.

The Falcons showed up the Vikings' top-ranked run defense on the first drive. After Ryan opened the game with an 11-yard completion to WR Michael Jenkins, RB Michael Turner took over the drive and the Falcons took advantage of two offside penalties on Kevin Williams. Turner rushed six times on the 12-play drive. But once inside the red zone, Ryan zipped a bullet to Jenkins at the 1-yard line, and Turner capped the drive with 1-yard run for a 7-0 lead after a drive that took 6:13 off the clock.

The Vikings were at least Atlanta's equal on their opening drive, using 12 plays and 6:47 to create their own touchdown drive. And, just like the Falcons, much of the work was done on the ground by the star running back. Peterson carried five times for 23 yards, and Chester Taylor and Jackson each added positive rushes of their own. Once across midfield, however, Jackson used two explosive plays – a 20-yard, first-down pass to Bobby Wade and, on the next play, a 21-yard touchdown pass to Shiancoe, who came up with a big catch early in the drive to convert the first third down. Shiancoe's touchdown tied the game at 7-7 with 2 minutes to play in the first quarter.

The Vikings defense stiffened and Atlanta was punting after only three plays, but another special teams blunder turned the tide back in the Falcons' favor. Bernard Berrian muffed a punt and Atlanta linebacker Michael Boley recovered at the 22-yard line. Five plays later, the Falcons had a seven-point lead again after Turner rushed twice for 14 yards and Jerious Norwood capped the drive by taking a shovel pass for the final 8 yards.

The Vikings' mistakes moved from special teams to offense. Peterson picked up 17 yards on a run across midfield on the ensuing drive and Shiancoe followed that with a 17-yard reception. But on the seventh play of the drive, Peterson fumbled the ball away to the Falcons. While Atlanta couldn't take advantage of the gift with a scoring drive, it was able to move across midfield before a Ray Edwards third-down sack brought the drive to a halt.

But even without a score to cap the drive, it improved their battle of field position and, even after Tarvaris Jackson scrambled for 29 yards to midfield, a missed exchange on a handoff one play later gave the ball quickly back to the Falcons offense.

This time, they did take advantage of it with less than four minutes to play in the first half. They got another present when Benny Sapp was flagged for illegal hands to the face on third-and-5, and from there the Atlanta offense took over. Ryan hit Jenkins for a 15-yard pass and Turner reeled off 11 more on the next play. Once inside the red zone, the Vikings defense tightened and forced a fourth-down field goal from 22 yards that allowed the Falcons to go to the locker room with a 17-7 lead.

The Vikings didn't let halftime improve their ball security. Jackson opened the second half with a 21-yard completion to Shiancoe, then scrambled for 18 yards before hitting Shiancoe again for 18 yards. But they didn't seem to be able to handle prosperity. On first-and-10 from the 16-yard line, Jackson was trying to move around in the pocket when Kindal Moorehead knocked him down and sent the ball flying backwards. Davis recovered this one too.

The teams exchanged punts, but once again the Falcons were the benefactors of field position. When they got it back, they were only a yard short of midfield. Ryan and Jenkins continued their connection, this time for a 22-yarder to start the drive. From there, the Falcons went to the draw game, with Turner and Norwood combining for 24 yards on four carries. On second-and-goal from the 5, Ryan ran for the goal line, came up short and fumbled at the 1-yard line and into the end zone. Darren Sharper and Cedric Griffin both missed opportunities to recover it and Justin Blalock recovered for a touchdown and a 24-7 Atlanta lead with 2:38 to play in the third quarter.

The Vikings finally caught a break of their own on the ensuing drive. While they were stopped short of midfield and forced to punt, the Falcons had 12 men on the field, giving Minnesota a first down and new life. On the next play, Shiancoe made a 31-yard catch in between three Falcons. When Jackson scrambled for 13 yards one play later, the Vikings were inside the red zone but couldn't turn that into a touchdown. Ryan Longwell came on for a 29-yard field to make it a 14-point deficit, 24-10, with 11:32 to play.

The defense rose to the occasion and stopped the Falcons on three plays, but the offense couldn't convert a fourth down when Jackson overthrew Berrian going for the big play.

Once again, the Vikings defense stopped Atlanta in three downs to keep hope alive. The offense came through when Peterson converted fourth-and-1 with a 3-yard run, and the offense got the benefit of a pass interference call on Chris Houston that cost Atlanta 30 yards. With two more touches, Peterson turned third-and-12 into a first down, and Jackson scrambled 13 yards and out of bounds to get the ball inside the red zone. One play later, Shiancoe got another touchdown with a 17-yard reception for a 24-17 deficit with 2:44 to play.

The defense stepped up again, thanks in part to Edwards' second sack of the game, giving the offense one last chance with 2:14 to play and one timeout. Wade picked up one first down with a10-yard catch, but the Vikings wouldn't get the benefit of a pass interference call on this drive, despite a couple of close no-calls that drew the ire of the hometown crowd, including a fourth-down sideline pass to Sidney Rice in which he appeared to have his hand held while forced to try a one-handed grab that fell incomplete, giving the Falcons a 24-17 win and leaving the Vikings needing a win next week or two losses by the Bears (on Monday night against Green Bay or at Houston in the season finale) to win the division title.

On Sunday, they fumbled away their chance earn anything more than a No. 3 seed.

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