ATLANTA - Atlanta had just scored a touchdown to take a 10-point lead with less than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, deflating a Vikings team that had fought to make a budding blowout competitive.
Percy Harvin approached Leslie Frazier on the sideline. "We had talked during the week about him returning kicks," Frazier said. "He came up to me and said, 'OK, Coach, is this the one you want me to take?'"
The answer to that question should always be, "Yes."
Harvin took the kick 7 yards deep in the end zone. He burst to the right and shot past the last Falcons defender near midfield. "I knew once I got to the 50, it was going to be a long run," Harvin said. "I was fatigued."
No wonder. With Adrian Peterson injured and the overmatched Vikings facing a probable playoff team in the Georgia Dome, Harvin was asked to become the Vikings' top deep receiver, slot receiver, specialty back and kick returner.
Peterson's nickname is "AD," for "All Day." Harvin's should be "BAO," for "By Appointment Only."
If Peterson is a leading man, Harvin specializes in cameos.
Sunday, Christian Ponder threw eight passes toward Harvin. Harvin caught all eight, for 95 yards.
Harvin set up the Vikings' first touchdown, in the third quarter, with a tough catch between two defenders good for 20 yards on third-and-10, landing just shy of the goal line. Toby Gerhart scored on the next play to cut the Atlanta lead to 17-7.
Early in the fourth, the Vikings faced fourth-and-13. The Falcons allowed Harvin to run free down the middle, and Ponder hit him for a 39-yard touchdown pass that made it 17-14.
When Atlanta scored about six minutes later, the Vikings were in danger of losing for the ninth time in 11 games. That was when Harvin found Frazier on the sideline, then sliced through Atlanta's kick coverage and saw Falcons cornerback Chris Owens bearing down on him.
"He's a fast guy, so we both tried to stretch it out at the end," Harvin said.
As Harvin passed the 20, then the 10, he looked over his left shoulder. "I was looking for him to maybe dive and clip my heel, and I was going to stiff-arm him," Harvin said. "But that didn't happen. He made a good play."
Owen caught Harvin and pulled him down at the 3. Harvin had just completed a 104-yard return, the longest in NFL history that did not result in a touchdown, and yet Owens' tackle kept him from a pivotal score, a play emblematic of the Vikings', and Harvin's, afternoon.
On first-and-goal, Ponder sprinted right and the only receiver in sight, Devin Aromashodu, abandoned his route and tried to block, leaving Ponder with no options other than taking a sack.
On second-and-goal from the 5, Harvin, a fat-free 184-pounder, slammed into the line for 3 yards. "He's unbelievable," Ponder said. "He's so tough. Everyone knows he's battling injuries and he's hurting a little bit, but he's out there every day, not only working hard in practice but playing extremely well in games."
On third down, Harvin, more skeleton key than battering ram, slammed into the line again. "I felt I scored," he said. "I was under the pile. I don't know if the referee got a good look at it. They discussed it and said it was no touchdown, so I moved on to the next play."
Instead of scoring on a 107-yard kickoff return, or finishing the drive with a rushing touchdown, Harvin's day was done. The Falcons overwhelmed Gerhart on a fourth-down carry, then ran out the clock, and Harvin was left to remember a spectacular day and an all-too-routine loss.
"My major thing coming into the game was, I knew AP was out, and I knew a lot of people didn't give us a chance even with AP," Harvin said. "With him being gone, probably a lot of people didn't even watch the game.
"So, me being a playmaker, I was kind of looking for the team to jump on my back."
Instead, it was Chris Owens who climbed aboard near the end of Harvin's longest run.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org