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, the rookie from Penn Charter, 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 in a 24-17 loss yesterday that clinched a postseason berth for the Falcons.
Michael Turner rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown for the Falcons (10-5), who were 4-12 a year ago and ended that season without a head coach or a franchise quarterback. With Mike Smith calling the shots and Ryan's steady hand, the Falcons now have that and so much more.
"We set milestones and we've reached those milestones at a much quicker pace than we had anticipated," Smith said.
Tarvaris Jackson played well in his second straight start for the Vikings (9-6), who were looking to clinch 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. He lost one fumble inside the Atlanta 20, another on a botched handoff from Jackson, and fumbled once more but recovered it during the final drive.
The Vikings missed their big chance at a turnover when Darren Sharper and Cedric Griffin could not come up with Ryan's fumble in the end zone late in the third quarter. In no surprise to Falcons fans, it was the 6-foot-4, 330-pound Blalock who pounced on the ball, giving Atlanta a 24-7 lead. Blalock beat three Tampa Bay defenders to a fumble by Ryan at midfield last week, extending 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 minutes, 44 seconds 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 a third-and-10 play, and Jackson's 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 two weeks or a win over the New York Giants next week in the season finale. The Bears host Green Bay tonight, then play at Houston.
Just less than 10 years ago, the Falcons walked into the thunderous Metrodome as heavy underdogs to Minnesota's offensive machine for the NFC championship game. Fans throughout Minnesota still lament Gary Anderson's 38-yard missed field goal in regulation and coach Dennis Green's decision to take a knee at the end of regulation. Morten Andersen's 38-yard winning field goal in overtime propelled the Falcons to their only Super Bowl appearance.
Just as in that game, the Falcons took the opening kickoff yesterday and marched downfield for a touchdown. Turner's 1-yard plunge capped the 12-play drive.