ATLANTA — During the Vikings’ first defensive series of the game against the Falcons, cornerback Terence Newman told his teammate Xavier Rhodes to calm down. Rhodes had the day’s most daunting assignment — to cover Atlanta receiver Julio Jones, who last week shredded the Bucs with 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns.
On that first drive, Matt Ryan, whose streak of 30 straight games with a touchdown pass ended Sunday, did not even look Jones’ way, and the Falcons stalled out on a long failed third-down try, resulting in only a field goal.
It was a snapshot of what was to come for the Falcons. Rhodes and the Vikings can exhale after allowing just one third-down conversion in 10 tries to an offense that was the league’s best on third down coming into the week, after holding Jones to just two receptions on six targets, after giving up just three field goals. The Vikings’ 14-9 victory over the Falcons was their eighth in a row, but given the circumstances — shutting down a potentially explosive playoff-contending NFC opponent on the road — this might be their most impressive win of the season so far. Coach Mike Zimmer called it something else: a grind.
“We’ve got a good bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “I think they believe now.”
Then, he continued: “I think they believe, I think they believed before. The more you win, go into somebody else’s stadium, win against a good football team, it continues to add to your confidence. They understand we haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t won the division, still have ways to go. Playing in December is going to be really important.”
Mostly for playoff seeding. Minnesota has a four-game lead in the NFC North, and the Lions and Packers, both at 6-6 and dealing with injured quarterbacks, are fighting to even sneak into a wild-card spot. The Vikings have bigger-picture issues at stake — can they overtake the Eagles to get home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs? Can Case Keenum keep performing at such a level that there is no quarterback controversy to contend with?
There will not be one again this week — Zimmer quickly declared Keenum will start against the Carolina Panthers in Week 14 — because Keenum and the offense played a virtually mistake-free game. He completed 25 of 30 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, including all 13 of the passes he attempted in the second half. The Vikings were 6 of 12 on third-down attempts, and Keenum’s best moments came with the game in the balance.
Atlanta was leading 9-7 when the Vikings started a drive at their own 11-yard line. They held the ball for 8 minutes and 15 seconds and drove 89 yards, with Keenum completing two third-down passes and then hitting Kyle Rudolph for a 6-yard touchdown. It gave the Vikings the lead, and after the Falcons failed to score on a drive midway through the fourth quarter, Keenum and the Vikings executed a five-minute drill to end the game. On the critical play, Adam Thielen created space between himself and the defender, and Keenum hit him on a slant for 22 yards. The game was all but over.
None of Keenum’s passes were big, dynamic throws, but they were on-target and safe, which is enough for a team with a defense as good as the Vikings have, and good enough to keep Teddy Bridgewater on the bench, perhaps for the rest of the season. Keenum’s remarkable career arc — going from journeyman to potential Super Bowl quarterback — brings to mind Jake Delhomme and Rich Gannon.
The quarterback situation will be one of the most tantalizing storylines of the final month of the season and beyond, and Keenum’s aptitude clearly has surprised the Vikings. Zimmer said he did not know he was as good a mover as he is, and he praised him for “making the plays he needs to make and not trying to overdo things.”
“It’s a combination of things, guys making plays down the field; there were some situations we were in third-and-forever, trying to get a chunk back,” Keenum said. “Their defense is very sound. You want to take shots when you can, but we try to take what they give us, as well.”
Rhodes was bubbly in the locker room, satisfied with his performance against Jones, who had just 24 yards. As long as he made a tackle and the Falcons didn’t score, he was happy.
“We’re coming together as a team, as one unit,” Rhodes said. “We have nobody that has egos; everybody is grounded on this team. It’s not one person winning these games. It’s not just the defense winning these games; it’s the offense, too, it’s special teams.”
There doesn’t seem to be much reason for the Vikings to calm down, after all.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter at @judybattista