December is never a fun time to plunge into the ice pond. Birds belong in the sky, not the freezer.
Unfortunately for the Atlanta Falcons, their growing heat got the chilly push from one of the elite teams of the NFC Sunday, landing them a table for one in Lake CouldaWouldaShoulda.
While the Falcons (7-5) managed to hold the Vikings to just two touchdowns on the day, the ascending Atlanta offense was sent crashing back to Earth by one of the league’s premiere defenses.
In the battle of great third-down offense (Atlanta) and great third-down defense (Vikings), the purple-and-white defenders salted the steak, and held Atlanta to only one third-down conversion on ten attempts and just nine total points – three field goals from veteran kicker Matt Bryant.
“Obviously, it’s not what we expect of ourselves or what we’re capable of,” Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews said of the performance.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Matthews said. “We had plenty of opportunities, and obviously settling for field goals isn’t the best strategy. We obviously would like to get into the red zone and score touchdowns. It’s on us, and [we’ve] got to get to work and get better at that and get back on track.”
The Falcons moved the ball well against the Vikings’ stout defense, but struggled all day to finish drives once in Minnesota territory.
“They’re a good defense across the board, and I think we had some missed [opportunities],” Atlanta tight end Levine Toilolo said. “We would liked to have made a few more plays, but that’s just the thing about this game is it takes all eleven guys.
“I think we’re real close on a lot of things, but at the end of the day,” he said, “if you don’t take advantage of those little details, then it’s hard to score points.”
Atlanta receiver Justin Hardy feels the team was just short of getting the job done.
“Just one play away, pretty much, for us,” Hardy said. “[We] weren’t connecting like we wanted to, but [we’re] just going to get back to the game plan.”
The Falcons had a chance to make a last-minute touchdown to take the lead, but after stalling out yet again in enemy territory, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn chose to attempt a field goal on a short fourth down instead of going for the first.
Bryant had a rare within-50 yards miss, and the Vikings never gave the ball back from then on. Hindsight is always 20/20, but tight end Austin Hooper believes kicking it was the right call.
“I have my coach's back, so I think it was the right decision,” Hooper said.
Penalties also mired the Falcons’ offense, with a few poorly-timed calls making promising offensive drives harder to extend.
“It’s not going to help you [to get penalties], it’s only going to hinder you, so we’ve got to get rid of those,” Matthews said. He was responsible for tallying a block in the back.
So, for the Falcons offense, whom many felt had taken a turn for the better after three-straight weeks of posting up 25+ points, it’s back to the drawing board.
It helps not to have to play the Vikings’ defense every week. But, for this team to regain a playoff spot, they’ll have to learn to consistently score on some of the more aggressive defending units the league has to offer.
“[The offense] wasn’t clicking as cleanly as it had been the last few weeks, and we’ve got to learn from it,” Matthews said. “It’s a challenge, but we’re ready for it. We’ve got a bunch of division games coming up, and we’ll be ready to go.”
Defense holds explosive Vikings defense in second-best performance of season
Moral victories don’t count for much, but for this Falcons defense, they’ve come a long way from where they were a year ago. The old sieve is turning into a shield.
The team held Minnesota to 14 points, which was the lowest the team had scored since starter Case Keenum permanently took the reins from the injured Sam Bradford.
The Falcons managed to keep Keenum from taking advantage of Atlanta’s depleted secondary – starting cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Brian Poole were both absent with injury.
“[We] did our job,” Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal said. “We just played our game – played our style of ball.”
The Falcons limited the Vikings to 227 yards in the air and 104 total yards on the ground (76 coming from Minny running back Latavius Murray).
“We knew how they were going to try and attack us,” Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. said. “We were well prepared for them.”
Reserves Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Damontae Kazee were the next men up this week and helped contribute immediately.
“Since I got here, the way we attack every week in, you just get ready. It’s easy for the next man to get up, and just to be able to play at a high level,” Wreh-Wilson said.
The pair received praise from Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen.
“They did amazing,” Allen said. “They held their own. They went out there and they communicated great. They made their tackles, and they held from explosives. That’s all you can ask for. Just keep playing team defense and just keep playing as hard as we can—that’s all we can ask for.”
With Poole hurt, Allen started at nickelback, something the team didn’t spend any time preparing him for. Poole was close to playing Sunday, but the Falcons held him out after a stiff pregame warmup.
“I didn’t prepare for it at all. I didn’t know until right before going into the game that I was going to be the starting nickel,” Allen said.
“It’s a different angle. You’re not really able to see the full formations and stuff like that, but you know, I do whatever it takes; whatever it takes to play our best ball and try to get a win, even though we didn’t. I do whatever it takes. It doesn’t matter.”
The banged-up secondary withstood Minnesota’s fierce passing attack up to the end, but a final big gain for WR Adam Thielen on CB C.J. Goodwin yielded the Vikings the first down needed to ice the game.
Playing well but losing in the end doesn’t satisfy Allen.
“There ain’t no moral victories over here,” Allen said. “It’s all about wins and losses. I’ve always been that guy where, I don’t care about stats. They could go out there and throw for 500 yards, and we win the game, I’m happy. I just want to win. I don’t care about nothing else; all that other stuff is window dressing.”
One victory that does count on the stat sheet is the season’s fifth sack for rookie Takk McKinley. The young pass rusher has already eclipsed Vic Beasley’s rookie tally, and notched his newest sack on Keenum, blasting past Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff.
But, even the younger players in the locker room like McKinley are looking for ways to improve on their successes.
“I just kinda just used my speed,” McKinley said. “Even then, I could’ve tried to do a better job by getting the ball out instead of just getting him to the ground, so it’s little things just like that [we’ve] got to [improve], you know, the little detailed stuff to really get the ball out.”
Falcons plan for Thursday’s first Saints bout of season
As comes with the territory, the Falcons won’t have long to mull over this most recent loss.
“[You’ve] got to push that game behind you right now,” Falcons corner Robert Alford said.
He’s not kidding – look who’s coming to town.
The division-leading New Orleans Saints (9-3) are set to make a trip to Atlanta Thursday, with a rejuvenated defense and a newly-minted two-headed monster out of the backfield in veteran Mark Ingram and explosive rookie Alvin Kamara.
A win Thursday would be paramount for the Falcons, as they now sit one spot outside of the six-team NFC playoff bracket.
Losing Sunday makes Thursday’s win a must for a Falcons team trying to earn a postseason berth.
“We were putting our all into trying to get dub this week,” Falcons DT Grady Jarrett said. “It didn’t happen, so we only can control what’s ahead of us, and it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a tough road, but we’re ready for it. We got the right guys for the job, and we gotta go back to work.”
Allen shared Quinn’s message to the team after losing a close one at home.
“Just keep grinding, Allen said. “Just keep pushing. Just keep going for it. Let’s move on and let’s get to the next. You know you don’t want to lose these down the last bit of the stretch. Now, [we’ve] got division play left, and we got some tough teams left, and [we’ve] got to just keep battling, keep our head up and just keep going.”
Neal echoed Quinn’s sentiments.
“Learn from this one and move forward,” Neal said. “Reset, and recharge and get ready.”
The 7-5 record is the same as it was for the 2016 Falcons squad, a mark where the team credited a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs as to kicking them into a new gear of practice. You know, the gear that sparked their six-game win streak to Houston.
Is that next gear obtainable this season?
Deion Jones surmises they might already be there.
“I feel like we’re doing it now,” Jones said. “Each week, we’ve gone in, [are] getting better in our preparation, and [are] coming out, and [we’re] flying around and playing our style of ball.
“It didn’t happen the way we wanted it to today, but I feel like guys still left it all out there, still locked in on their details, and flew around and made the best every play.”
Alford thinks this team can even chart the same trajectory as their 2016 counterparts.
“I know this team,” Alford said. “I know this team from the coaches on down to us, the players. We still know we’re still alive. I mean, [we’ve] just got to do our part and win games. It’s not over yet. [We’ve] just got own our division and win out now.”