Vikings defense steps up in win over Falcons
ATLANTA - Wth the hall of famer looking on, Case Keenum put on a Fran Tarkenton-like performance.
The quarterback completed his final 15 passes, including 13 of 13 in the second half, to lead the Vikings to a 14-9 win Sunday over Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Tarkenton, who led Minnesota to three Super Bowls and lives in Atlanta, watched the game from owner Zygi Wilf’s suite. Keenum did his usual amount of Tarkentonesque scrambling to avoid the pass rush and he put the Vikings ahead for good on a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 14-9 lead.
“We’re really excited to come in here and beat a really, really talented Atlanta Falcons, defending NFC champs,’’ Keenum said.
The Vikings are looking to claim that title for themselves this season, and with each week it looks more realistic.
The Vikings (10-2) won their eighth straight game, their longest streak since winning the final eight in the regular season and then a playoff game in 1998. They are off to their best start since the 2009 team also began 10-2.
Minnesota trailed 9-7 in the third quarter, but nobody seemed too concerned.
“Guys believe in one another,’’ said defensive tackle Tom Johnson. “We feel in any game, in any situation we can pull it out, that we’re the best team out there.’’
Taking over at their 11 with 8:11 left in the third quarter, Keenum led the Vikings on 15-play, 89-yard march that took 8:15 off the clock and culminated with the TD pass to Rudolph. Minnesota converted three third downs on the drive.
“I think it was just the same mindset, the same mood that we always have, we just to get locked in, get one play at a time,” Keenum said of the drive.
Keenum completed 25 of 30 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns and had an impressive passer rating of 120.4. His first touchdown was a 2-yarder to running back Jerick McKinnon that gave the Vikings a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter.
McKinnon, who grew up in the Atlanta area, celebrated by doing a “Dirty Bird’’ dance, modeled after what the Falcons did when they made the Super Bowl in January 1999. McKinnon was then 6 years old.
The Vikings had three trips to the red zone. They converted the first two for touchdowns and on their third Keenum kneeled down three straight times when it was first-and-goal at the 10 to end the game.
“They were kicking field goals in the red zone and we scored touchdowns,’’ Rudolph said.
The Falcons (7-5) got only field goals from Matt Bryant of 38 yards in the first quarter, 36 yards in the second and 47 in the third. With Atlanta down 14-9, Bryant missed a 45-yard attempt with 4:58 left in the game and the Vikings were able to run out the clock.
On third-and-four at the Atlanta 43 with 3:59 left, Keenum completed a short pass to Adam Thielen that he turned into a 22-yard gain. With the Falcons out of timeouts, they were doomed after that.
The Vikings finished the game 6 of 12 on third-down conversions. The Falcons, meanwhile, were 1 of 10.
“It was a hard fought win today,’’ said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. “It was a heck of a grind. … Really, the difference in the ballgame was probably the third-down conversions for both teams … I didn’t think we would go 1 of 10 (on defense), but we always put a big emphasis on third down.’’
The Vikings forced last year’s NFL MVP, Matt Ryan, into a mediocre outing. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 173 yards and had a passer rating of 72.9 after coming in 10th in the NFL at 97.2.
Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones, who caught 12 passes for 253 yards the previous Sunday, was blanketed by cornerback Xavier Rhodes and had just two catches for 24 yards.
“I told the team inside, certainly a difficult loss for us,’’ said Atlanta coach Dan Quinn, whose team had a three-game winning streak snapped.
The Falcons didn’t get a lot on offense beyond Devonta Freeman, who returned after missing two games with a concussion, rushing for 74 yards.
But Freeman was topped by Minnesota’s Latavius Murray running for 76 yards. Murray’s 30-yard burst early in the second quarter put the Vikings at the 2 and in position for McKinnon’s touchdown.
Soon, none of Keenum’s passes would hit the ground. His last incompletion of the game came with 20 seconds left in the first half.
Keenum, though, mostly shrugged off his performance. He is 8-2 as a starter, but continues to look forward.
“Everything’s out in front of us,’’ he said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.’’