The Falcons received a welcomed Thanksgiving gift courtesy of the Green Bay Packers, whose 27-15 victory over Detroit on Thursday enhanced Atlanta's chances of returning to the NFC Playoffs as a Wild Card entry. A win over the badly-struggling Vikings would give the Falcons an identical 7-4 record as the Lions, whom Atlanta defeated earlier this season.
Atlanta still has designs on capturing a second straight NFC South title, however, and enters the weekend trailing rival New Orleans by one game in the standings. The Saints, who will host the New York Giants on Monday, will face the Falcons at the Superdome in Week 16 in a contest that could decide the division.
In the meantime, Atlanta hopes to take care of business against a Minnesota squad that's won just twice in 2011, has lost 13 of its last 16 road games, and may be without star running back Adrian Peterson on Sunday.
Peterson exited last week's 27-21 loss to AFC West leader Oakland in the first quarter with a high left ankle sprain and although subsequent tests revealed only a Grade 1 injury, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier indicated that the four-time All-Pro would likely be held out for at least one week.
Minnesota's offense had its problems following Peterson's departure, with rookie quarterback Christian Ponder throwing three interceptions and the team turning the ball over five times in all on the afternoon.
"He is the center point of our offense, so anytime you don't have Adrian Peterson, it alters your plans as an offense and as a team," said Frazier. "He's one of our leaders. He's arguably our best player in a lot of ways. To not have him on the field, that's a big loss for our team and it does change how you have to approach things."
They'll be facing a stern Atlanta defense that's yielded the second-fewest rushing yards in the NFL and held Tennessee's Chris Johnson to a meager 13 yards on 12 attempts in last week's 23-17 triumph over the Titans at the Georgia Dome.
Quarterback Matt Ryan contributed 316 passing yards to the win, the Falcons' fourth in five outings since a sluggish 2-3 start to the season, with running back Michael Turner adding 100 rushing yards and a touchdown.
"I believe that we're still not playing as consistent as we need to play, but we're playing more consistent than we were through the first five games of the season," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith. "I think the things that are going to make us the team that we want to be is that we've got to play with consistency, we've got to play with focus and we've got to play smart. I don't know that we've put all three of those things together like we would like in one football game."
The Vikings have a 15-9 lead in their all-time regular-season series with the Falcons, but Atlanta has won two of the past three meetings between the clubs. The Falcons posted a 24-17 road decision over Minnesota in the most recent clash, which took place in 2008, and delivered a 30-10 victory in the Vikings' last visit to the Georgia Dome back in 2005. Minnesota last topped the Falcons via a 24-3 verdict at the Metrodome in 2007 and hasn't prevailed in Atlanta since a 39-26 win in 2003.
These teams have also faced off twice in postseason play. Minnesota dealt Atlanta a 30-24 setback in Minneapolis in a 1982 NFC First-Round Playoff, while the Falcons upset a one-loss Vikings outfit in a 30-27 overtime thriller in the 1998 NFC Championship to advance to their only Super Bowl in franchise history.
Smith owns a 1-0 record against Minnesota during his time as Atlanta's head coach, while Frazier will be opposing both the Falcons and Smith for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
The expected absence of Peterson (872 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 12 total TD) could be a devastating blow to a Minnesota offense that's fifth in the league in rushing (143.1 ypg) and has depended heavily on its workhorse back. It also hasn't helped matters that Ponder (955 rushing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT) has been experiencing substantial growing pains in a debut campaign that began promisingly. The first-round draft choice has six interceptions in four starts since replacing declining veteran Donovan McNabb in the starting lineup and has completed a subpar 52.1 percent of his attempts, though he did throw for two late touchdowns against the Raiders and added 71 rushing yards on five scrambles. Gerhart (118 rushing yards, 5 receptions) has shown to be serviceable in spot duty during his brief pro career and the dynamic Harvin (43 receptions, 2 total TD) has accumulated 224 rushing yards and averaged an excellent eight yards per carry when employed as a runner, so the ground game shouldn't be in dire straits if Peterson is indeed held out. Harvin is also the best of a rather nondescript corps of receivers that also contains Michael Jenkins (36 receptions, 3 TD), a first-round selection of the Falcons in 2004 who spent his first seven seasons with Atlanta before joining the Vikings over the summer, with fellow wideout Devin Aromashodu (8 receptions) a deep threat who's averaging over 24 yards per catch on the year.
Even if Peterson does suit up, Minnesota may encounter difficulty moving the ball on the ground on an Atlanta defense that limited both the Saints and Titans to 41 rushing yards in each of its past two games and sports a strong crew of linebackers headed by the durable Curtis Lofton (91 tackles, 1 INT) in the middle and athletic 2010 first-round selection Sean Weatherspoon (79 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 PD) on the weak side. The Falcons haven't been quite as formidable against the pass, having allowed an average of 254.1 yards per game through the air (26th overall) on the year, and the secondary may have strong safety William Moore (32 tackles, 1 INT) unavailable for a third straight week due to quadriceps injury. Veteran nickel back Kelvin Hayden (24 tackles, 2 INT) also may not play after dislocating his toe in the Tennessee win, which could place a further burden on a pass rush that's been sporadic over the course of the season. Atlanta has produced only 16 sacks through 10 games, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL, and hasn't gotten much out of big-ticket free-agent end Ray Edwards (23 tackles, 2 sacks), a former Viking who faces his old team for the first time since signing a five-year contract with the Falcons in the offseason. Opposite-side starter John Abraham (21 tackles, 4 sacks) has notched double-digit sack numbers in three of the previous four years, but may be slowing down some in his 12th NFL season.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
An offense that's been operating with both balance and efficiency has helped engineer Atlanta's midseason turnaround, as has a greater urgency to put the ball in the hands of Turner (888 rushing yards, 8 TD, 10 receptions). The powerful back has had at least 19 carries in each of the past five games and come through with three 100-yard efforts during that stretch, and the Falcons have averaged an impressive 142.4 rushing yards over that period. That reliance on the running game has also aided both Ryan (2625 passing yards, 15 TD, 10 INT) and a front line that was shaky in protection early on. After surrendering 13 sacks over the first three weeks, the group has permitted just seven in seven games since. Ryan has averaged 314 passing yards and put together a 6- to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the three contests that followed a Week 8 bye, and the fourth-year signal-caller will have three quality receivers to work with once again with rookie standout Julio Jones (30 receptions, 2 TD) on track to return from a hamstring strain that kept him out of last Sunday's win. Veteran Roddy White (54 receptions, 710 yards, 3 TD) stepped up his game in Jones' absence, with the three-time Pro Bowler registering a season-best 147 yards on seven catches against the Titans, while ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez (50 receptions, 7 TD) continues to excel in his 14th season. The 35- year-old totaled 74 yards on five grabs last week and scored a touchdown for a third straight game, and he's often Ryan's go-to guy within the red zone.
The Vikings' defense has generally been pretty tough against the run but poor versus the pass over the course of this season, but last week's results were a reversal of fortune. Minnesota's injury-riddled secondary gave up just 139 net passing yards and recorded four sacks against the Raiders, but were gashed for 162 yards on the ground as Oakland held the ball for nearly 36 minutes. Still, a front seven headlined by perennial Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams (21 tackles, 1 sacks) and linebackers Chad Greenway (88 tackles, 1 sack) and E.J. Henderson (55 tackles, 2 sacks) has held opponents to 100.7 rushing yards (10th overall) per game and a solid 3.7 yards per carry on the year. Stopping enemy quarterbacks has been another matter, altogether, however. Even with difference-making end Jared Allen (43 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 1 INT) applying pressure on a routine basis, the Vikings stand a lowly 28th in pass defense (259.4 ypg) and have come up with a mere six interceptions, and the backfield is presently without its two best cornerbacks in veteran Antoine Winfield (fractured clavicle) and second-year man Chris Cook (suspension).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Basically, the Falcons should win this game as long as they take care of the football. Atlanta is 5-0 this season when finishing with a positive or even turnover ratio, but 1-4 when it has more giveaways than its opponent. The team has had just one turnover in each of its last three contests, and continuing that trend would likely lead to further success this week.
Ponder's play. The Vikings are going to find it hard to reach their usual level of production running the football without Peterson and in a matchup against the league's second-ranked rush defense. That means Ponder is going to have to come of age and make plays with his arm while keeping the rookie mistakes to a minimum. Another three-interception output like last week will almost surely spell doom.
Red-zone performance. Atlanta would have had an easy win last Sunday if not for a host of missed scoring opportunities. The Falcons marched inside the Tennessee 20-yard line six times but scored only two touchdowns, settling for three Matt Bryant field goals while also losing a fumble on one drive. Minnesota's capable of hanging around if Atlanta's equally as inefficient in this game.
Considering that the Vikings' two wins this year have come against a pair of the league's bottom-feeders in Arizona and Carolina and factoring in the team's sustained lack of success on the road, Minnesota was already in a tough spot with a struggling rookie quarterback going up against a quality opponent in its own building. With Peterson likely out and a depleted back end of the defense, the outlook looks even more bleak. The Falcons hold sizeable advantages in just about all phases here, and only their tendency to go through lulls over a course of a game prevents this one from turning into a massive blowout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Vikings 13