MINNEAPOLIS - The Atlanta Falcons' stunning turnaround season will roll on into the playoffs, thanks to Matt Ryan's unflappable poise, Justin Blalock's hustle and the generosity of the Minnesota Vikings.
Ryan (13-for-24, 134 yards) threw for a touchdown and made no big mistakes, Blalock recovered a fumble in the end zone for another score and the Vikings committed four turnovers yesterday in Atlanta's 24-17 victory that clinched a postseason berth for the Falcons.
Michael Turner (70 yards, 19 carries) rushed for a touchdown for the Falcons (10-5), who were 4-12 a year ago and ended the season without a head coach or franchise quarterback Michael Vick.
With coach Mike Smith calling the shots and Ryan's steady hand, the Falcons have that and much more now.
"We set milestones and we've reached those milestones at a much quicker pace than we had anticipated," Smith said.
Tarvaris Jackson (22-for-36, 233 yards) played well in his second straight start for the Vikings (9-6), who could have clinched their first division title since 2000. Jackson threw for 233 yards and two scores and rushed for 76 yards, but also had a fumble at the Atlanta 16.
The league's leading rusher, Adrian Peterson, was held to 76 yards on 22 carries. He lost a fumble inside the Atlanta 20, another one on a botched handoff from Jackson and had one more that he recovered on the final drive.
The Vikings missed their big chance at a turnover when Darren Sharper and Cedric Griffin couldn't come up with Ryan's fumble in the end zone in the third quarter.
To no surprise to Falcons fans, it was the 6-4, 330-pound Blalock who pounced on the ball instead, giving Atlanta a 24-7 lead late in the third quarter. It was Blalock who beat three Tampa Bay defenders to a fumble by Ryan at midfield last week that extended a drive in a 13-10 win.
Jackson, who connected on 11 straight passes at one point, threw two touchdowns to Visanthe Shiancoe, the last a 17-yarder that pulled the Vikings within a touchdown with 2:44 to play.
The Vikings forced a punt and had the ball at their 33 with 2:14 to play and one timeout. But John Abraham sacked Jackson on third-and 10, and his desperation heave on fourth down fell incomplete.
The Vikings still have a shot at their first NFC North title, needing a Chicago loss in the last 2 games or a win over the New York Giants next week in the season finale. The Bears host Green Bay tonight, then play at Houston.
Everything seemed to be going Atlanta's way as the weekend began, with Dallas falling to Baltimore at home Saturday night and Tampa Bay losing to San Diego earlier yesterday.
That paved the way for one of the NFL's most surprising teams to secure a playoff berth. *