ATLANTA – On Jan. 17, 2014, the day he was introduced as Vikings head coach, Mike Zimmer laid out a manifesto for his defense that was striking as much for its simplicity as anything else.
“I want to stop the run and I want to hit the quarterback, however that is,” he said. “If we got to blitz, I think we have a great blitz package, but I want to be fundamentally sound in what we do. There are teams that can go out there … and make a lot of big plays, but they are not fundamentally sound. Then when the game gets on the line, they do not perform in the crucial situations of the game.”
On Sunday, in Zimmer’s 60th regular-season game as Vikings coach, his team beat the defending NFC champion on the road for the second consecutive year, winning 14-9 by squelching an Atlanta Falcons offense that had scored 540 points during the 2016 regular season. And in perhaps more than any other game they have played under Zimmer, the Vikings embodied the philosophy the coach laid out in his initial news conference.
If the Vikings’ Week 3 victory over the Carolina Panthers last year showcased their dynamism and raw strength, Sunday’s victory served as a reminder of just how good they are at taking care of business.
Without the benefit of a sack to derail a possession or a turnover to end one, the Vikings kept the Falcons out of the end zone for the first time since Dec. 13, 2015. They stopped Matt Ryan’s NFL-best streak of 30 consecutive games with a touchdown pass, and gave up only 275 yards of total offense. A Falcons team that led the NFL in third-down conversion percentage went 1-for-10, and a Vikings team that had allowed a league-low 11 runs of 10 yards or more surrendered only one.
“We never panicked, and we stuck to the game plan,” Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen said. “Everybody is on the same page. We do it for one another, and that is the only thing that you can ask for in this league. We do not have any selfish guys on this team, and we play together as one. One heartbeat, one sound.”
Their victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium moved the Vikings to 10-2, and coupled with the Panthers’ 31-21 loss to the New Orleans Saints, it assured the Vikings of a two-game margin on the three teams chasing them for a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs. The Vikings already have beaten two of those teams (the Saints and L.A. Rams), and they will travel to Carolina on Sunday.
A victory in Charlotte also would clinch the Vikings’ second NFC North title in three years; they lead the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers by four games with four to play. And with the Philadelphia Eagles losing Sunday night, the Vikings, for now, also hold the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff picture.
“I think they believe and that they have believed before, but the more you win and you go into someone else’s stadium and win against a good football team, I think it continues to add to your confidence as we go forth,” Zimmer said. “They were happy in the locker room, but they understand we haven’t really done anything yet. We haven’t won the division and we have a ways to go. How we play in December is going to be real important.”
A week after he’d posted 253 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones caught only one of his four targets for 13 yards through the game’s first 50 minutes, as the Vikings used cornerback Xavier Rhodes to shadow the Pro Bowler with occasional help from safety Harrison Smith in bracket coverage.
It’s a similar template to the one they used to neutralize Odell Beckham Jr. last October against the Giants (only the Vikings are now willing to have Rhodes follow his man into the slot, as they did several times Sunday), and the approach meant Jones didn’t catch his second pass until the 6:49 mark in the fourth quarter, when Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian called a screen to get Jones the ball out of a three-receiver set.
The Vikings forced Ryan to subsist on short passes to his tight ends and running backs instead of the crossing routes he’s used to great effect in recent years.
Atlanta’s best chance to take a late lead came when they drove 38 yards to the Vikings 33 with 6:08 left. But Rhodes stopped Tevin Coleman for no gain on first down, Ryan’s pass was too high for Jones on second down and the Falcons had to settle for a 6-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel on third down.
Rather than going for it on fourth-and-4, Falcons coach Dan Quinn opted for a 45-yard Matt Bryant field-goal attempt with 5:04 left, but the kick sailed wide left and the Vikings sealed the game with a nine-play, 52-yard drive that consumed the game’s final 4:58.
They held the ball for just over 34 minutes, as Case Keenum completed all 13 of his second-half passes, and scored their second touchdown on a 15-play, 89-yard drive. Since the bye week, the Vikings are 12-for-15 in the red zone; two of their three trips without a score have ended in kneel-downs to seal victories.
“This is the second year in a row that we have had to go on the road and play the defending NFC champion,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “We knew we would have a fight for four quarters, and when you are facing an offense as good as Atlanta and a quarterback that’s as talented as Matt Ryan, we knew getting the ball back with five minutes left in the game, we had to end it. We had to end the game with our offense on the field.”