Minnesota Vikings secure NFC North lead after win at Falcons

ATLANTA -- With the Falcons faltering and a 70-degree Sunday begging for outdoor activity, wide swathes of empty seats turned the Georgia Dome into general admission Minnesota.Hundreds of purple-and-gold-clad Vikings fans swarmed the lower level ...

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Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson dives for extra yards in the third quarter of their game against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at the Georgia Dome. The Vikings won 20-10. (Photo by Jason Getz / USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA - With the Falcons faltering and a 70-degree Sunday begging for outdoor activity, wide swathes of empty seats turned the Georgia Dome into general admission Minnesota.
Hundreds of purple-and-gold-clad Vikings fans swarmed the lower level behind the visitors’ bench late in the fourth quarter. “Defense! Defense!” they howled, drowning out Atlanta’s middling faithful and serenading the NFC North leaders.
Call off the bloodhounds hunting the NFL landscape for Mike Zimmer’s signature victory. The Vikings’ 20-10 triumph over the freefalling Falcons was not their best performance of 2015. It merely was their finest.
Down two starting safeties and facing the league’s toughest run defense, Minnesota’s secondary had two interceptions while running back Adrian Peterson chiseled 158 rushing yards out of 29 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns.
Another dominant defensive performance netted three turnovers while a fierce goal-line stand in the third quarter gutted the Falcons. Another resilient win strengthened Minnesota’s grip on a playoff spot and all but buried Atlanta.
“Yeah, man, this is a big win for us to be sitting at 8-3 right now - huge win,” said defensive end Everson Griffen, who resurfaced with a pivotal third-down sack in the third quarter. “We’re excited. It’s another day where we showcased our ability.
“We’re just trying to make a huge step each and every week and keep proving people wrong.”
That chip of no-respect remains stapled on the Vikings’ collective shoulder. The Lombardi Trophy might not be enough to pry it off. Question their bona fides at your own risk.
Wins in the NFL are precious, but a whiff of cynicism permeated the Vikings’ pearly record after they soiled their home bed in last week’s 30-13 loss to Green Bay. Validation demanded they take down a contender.
The Falcons were their huckleberry.

Quarterback Matt Ryan was atrocious despite Harrison Smith’s absence in the defensive backfield.
Trailing 7-3 to start the second half Ryan led a 16-snap marathon that pushed Minnesota to the brink only to implode in the end zone - twice.
Tevin Coleman’s go-ahead touchdown was abolished by a clipping penalty, a throwback call so rare referee Clete Blakeman was wearing a powdered wig when he announced it.
Tom Johnson promptly was flagged for illegal hands to the face, setting up the Falcons with first-and-goal from the 10. But they kept marching backwards.
On third-and-14, Ryan was flushed left. Cornerback Terence Newman faded from tight end Jacob Tamme in the back of the end zone, luring Ryan into making an unwise throw across his body. Newman leaped in front of the pass and yanked down his 40th career interception.
“I tried to just bait him, and it worked out,” he said.
Ryan choked on the hook. The momentum-jerking play energized the Vikings, who answered with a pair of Blair Walsh field goals.
Peterson came over the top with 4 minutes, 23 seconds remaining, racing down the left sideline for a 35-yard door-slamming touchdown.
“We are in a good place, (but) we can’t get complacent,” said Peterson. “We have to go out with the mindset that it’s a dogfight. That’s how it was throughout this game. As a group, the will that we play with and the desire to have each other’s back is why we’re able to bounce back.”
The Vikings quickly reasserted themselves after losing to the Packers, a hallmark trait throughout their ascension among the NFC elite.
They manhandled Detroit and San Diego at home following their embarrassing Week 1 loss at San Francisco.
They reeled off five straight wins following a close loss at Denver.
And they exploited Green Bay’s Thanksgiving Day loss to seize the division lead again.
“It’s definitely sweet to be back in first place, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who also had an interception.
There is something charming watching the Vikings mature in their second season under Zimmer, their tobacco-chomping, no-favors-asked-none-given commander in chief.
The Bill Parcells disciple is loath to relish the moment, not with five games remaining and no championship banners flying yet at Winter Park.
“We are nowhere near where we need to be, but this team has a lot of fighters on it,” Zimmer said.
They’re fighting for respect and refusing to accept it.
They’re fighting for each other and reaping the rewards.
The struggle endures.
The fun continues.

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