ATLANTA — Every week, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn emphasizes the importance of winning on third down and in the red zone. Sunday’s loss showed exactly why Quinn harps on it all the time.
The Falcons felt good about themselves entering the matchup with the Minnesota Vikings as they had the league’s top third-down offense, converting 48.1 percent of those opportunities. Plus, the defense made some big stops in last week’s win over Tampa Bay.
But it all went for naught, as third-down struggles on both sides and settling for field goals on offense eventually led to the Falcons’ demise in a 14-9 loss.
Not only did the Falcons’ three-game winning streak come to an end, but now the playoff picture becomes a little fuzzier. The Falcons are 7-5 and among the group of teams trying to hold on to a wild-card spot right next to the Seattle Seahawks, whom they beat in Week 11. It won’t be easy for the Falcons to secure a postseason berth with the league’s toughest schedule to finish, which includes two games against the rival New Orleans Saints and a rematch with a defense just as tough and physical as the Vikings’ in the Carolina Panthers.
In order to make a playoff push, the Falcons can’t fall back on bad habits like they did against the Vikings. They were 1-for-10 on third down a week after going 11-of-14 against the Buccaneers. Some of the seven penalties the Falcons picked up contributed to their third-down woes.
“I thought we had too many third-and-7s,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think one of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn’t do a good job of that.
“They are a very good defense. We knew it was going to be tough sledding at times, but we’ve got to be more productive and put ourselves in better positions. When we get our chances on third downs, we’ve got to make some plays.”
The Falcons were 0-for-1 in the red zone and settled for three Matt Bryant field goals for the entire day — and Bryant even missed a key 45-yarder late. The players totally backed Quinn’s decision to go with that field goal with 5 minutes, 4 seconds remaining and the Falcons facing fourth-and-4 from the Vikings’ 27 rather than gamble and go for it. Besides, they needed as many points as possible with touchdowns hard to come by against a stingy Vikings defense.
The only other time the Falcons scored in single digits this season was a 23-7 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 7.
“We just have to get back in rhythm,” Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones said. “Today, we were just missing offensively. … From our standpoint, we’re way better than nine points. We just have to get it fixed.”
Defensively, the Falcons missed tackles and let the Vikings go over 100 yards rushing. The defense allowed NFC Offensive Player of the Month Case Keenum to complete 25 of 30 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns and a 120.4 passer rating. They allowed the Vikings to convert 6 of 12 third downs, including a crucial third-and-4 in the late stages that resulted in Keenum’s 22-yard connection with Adam Thielen, a conversion that all but sealed the victory. Allowing the Vikings to convert those third downs was a reason Minnesota had the ball almost 10 minutes longer.
“That ain’t good at all,” Falcons defensive back Ricardo Allen said of the Vikings converting 50 percent on third down. “That kept a lot of their drives going. We just have to get off the field on third down.
“They didn’t really throw any challenging balls. [Keenum] took what we gave him. It wasn’t like they were out there dicing us up or anything. Whatever we gave them, they took. And if they had to punt the ball, they punted the ball.”
Back on offense, Ryan couldn’t find that connection with Jones, who had just two catches for 24 yards on six targets while matched up a lot against Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Devonta Freeman rushed for 74 yards on 12 carries in his return from a concussion, which is a positive sign for the Falcons for the remainder of the season. But it didn’t help the cause Sunday.
The Falcons’ next challenge is a quick turnaround, with not much time to prepare for Thursday night’s NFC South showdown with the rival and division-leading Saints. One aspect the Falcons do have in their favor is the game being at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the final part of a three-game homestand.
“It’s already preparation for Thursday night,” Allen said. “We’ve got to go get it.”