ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons recovered from a disappointing 2015, when they started 5-0 only to finish 8-8, to make it to the Super Bowl last season.
One year later, the Minnesota Vikings are trying to follow the same script. The Vikings also had an 8-8 finish following a 5-0 start in 2016. Now, they have the NFC’s second-best record.
The Vikings will put their seven-game winning streak on the line Sunday when they face the Falcons, who have won three straight.
“I think we learned a lot from that experience,” said linebacker Anthony Barr of Minnesota’s 2016 collapse. “And I think we’re better for it. I think all the adversity that was thrown our way, we may not have overcome it at the moment, but it built us stronger for moments like these.”
The Vikings (9-2) took a three-game lead over Detroit in the NFC North by beating the Lions 30-23 last week. Minnesota boasts a high-scoring offense led by quarterback Case Keenum and a defense which ranks fifth in the league.
Keenum is 7-2 as a starter and has thrown 14 touchdown passes with five interceptions in that span.
The Falcons (7-4) are encouraged by their revived offense. Julio Jones was the key in last week’s 34-20 win over Tampa Bay, catching 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes is expected to lead the Vikings’ coverage on Jones.
Running back Devonta Freeman, who has missed the last two games, could return this week after being cleared from the concussion protocol.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he’s seen a renewed commitment from his team “to make sure our style of how we play really comes across clearly.”
“About three weeks ago, we had discussed that wasn’t coming through as clearly as we’d like,” Quinn said. “A kick-ass run; the play-action that goes with it; effectiveness on third down offensively; defense that’s driven by the turnovers; the physicality we want to play with; hits on the quarterback. We felt like over the last few weeks that identity offensively and defensively is more coming to life.”
Here are some things to know about the matchup of teams on track to make the NFC playoffs:
TAKK’S SACKS: Rookie defensive end Takk McKinley is emerging as another threat in Atlanta’s overhauled pass rush. McKinley, the first-round pick from UCLA, has sacks in two straight games and four overall.
“His pass rush from the beginning has been good because of his get-off,” Quinn said Wednesday. “He can beat a guy to the punch, but I think he’s starting to understand the game more clearly now and when to take a shot.”
THIRD-DOWN SHOWDOWN: The Vikings’ defense leads the NFL in allowing only a 28.5 percent success rate on third downs. That will be a key statistic to watch against the Falcons, who credit improved third-down success as a key to their recent offensive resurgence.
“We’ve been better the last couple of weeks on third down,” said quarterback Matt Ryan. “We’ve been better in the red area as well. … We’ve still got to work at it.”
STILL THE CASE WITH KEENUM: Keenum was voted the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November, the first Vikings quarterback to win the NFL’s monthly award since Brett Favre in November 2009. Keenum completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 866 yards over three games.
Despite Keenum’s success, coach Mike Zimmer has declined to declare him the indefinite starter. Former starter Teddy Bridgewater is looming in the background.
“I’m not looking to pull him, but every week is a different week in this league,” said Zimmer of Keenum.
Keenum said he is “taking things a week at a time, trusting the process.”
THE JET WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA: The Vikings are undefeated since losing standout rookie running back Dalvin Cook to a season-ending ACL injury. They are using Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon in an effective, versatile tandem. This is a special week for McKinnon, a third-round draft choice out of Georgia Southern in 2014 who has 651 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns this year.
“Jet” McKinnon is a native of Marietta, Georgia, who is expecting dozens of family and friends at the game. Many of them, naturally, are Falcons fans.
“I can’t lose, because if I lose I have to hear it for a whole year,” McKinnon said.
DO-IT-ALL ALLEN: Falcons safety Ricardo Allen seems surprised at the credit he received from having to move around the secondary last week against Tampa Bay.
He played free safety, cornerback, nickel and strong safety. “That’s pretty rare,” Quinn said.
Allen switched from cornerback to safety in 2015. “I don’t think of myself as just a free safety,” he said. “I see myself as a defensive back.”
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