And not only are the Falcons going to the playoffs, but assuming a victory next week over a Rams team that is decidedly without hap, the Falcons are going to be favored in round one on the road at Arizona. The Cards have been outscored on the season and are 3-7 outside of their wretched division. In other words, there is a very good chance that the Falcons will be playing a game in Charlotte or the Meadowlands in January.
[Update: in all the discussion about Carolina potentially winning the top seed in the NFC, I forgot that a Panthers loss would put the Falcons in position to win the division. So now, Atlanta is a win over a two-win St. Louis team and a Saints win at home against Carolina from winning the division, getting the #2 seed, and playing a home game for the right to play in the NFC Championship Game. In other words, Carolina would have to become the first NFC South team to win a road game in the division in order to prevent the Falcons from getting the #2 seed. Pity the poor Saints. Their reward for winning their final game and finishing with a winning record would be to hand the division title to their arch-rival. If not for parenting obligations, I would be tempted to go to the Saints-Panthers game this weekend in Falcons gear just to be obnoxious.]
With those happy thoughts out of the way, I have to make an obvious point: the Falcons were fortunate to win today. Minnesota moved the ball fairly consistently on the Falcons' defense, but the Vikings put the ball on the ground repeatedly and the Falcons fell on it repeatedly. Since the recovery of fumbles is an essentially random occurrence, Atlanta was lucky in winning a one-score game in which they fell on the ball the first four times the Vikes put it on the ground and the Falcons fell on their own fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. Minnesota outgained the Falcons by 128 yards and 1.2 yards per play. Those numbers are a little inflated because the Falcons spent the whole fourth quarter trying to run clock and the Vikings spent the fourth quarter in two-minute mode. Still, after the Falcons' first drive, they were outplayed. The game was the reverse of the Vikings-Saints game earlier this year, in which New Orleans badly outplayed Minnesota and lost because of a variety of freaky occurrences that should be expected by Saints fans at this stage.
And while I'm complaining about a 10-5 team that was predicted to be one of the worst in the NFL, another beef: the Falcons get very predictable with the lead. Lloyd Carr would have approved of the playcalling in the fourth quarter, which was very, very basic and allowed the Vikings to seize momentum. As good as Michael Turner is, the Falcons' passing game is the team's best attribute (other than the punting unit, which would make Jim Tressel proud). With a lead in the fourth quarter, the Falcons voluntarily did away with that asset, save for a couple very predictable throws on third and loss and a moderately predictable rollout on second down on their last offensive series prior to kneeling.
The one guy who makes Atlanta's conservative end-game strategy work is John Abraham. If Bill Walsh is right that a fourth quarter pass rush is the key to success in the NFL, then Abraham deserves consideration for NFL MVP because he's consistently making plays at the end of close games. His sack of Tarvaris Jackson was critical. Mike Smith and Brian VanGorder also deserve credit for Abraham's exploits at the end of games because of their rotation of defensive linemen (including Abraham) throughout the game. I always associated cycling of defensive linemen with college football powers as opposed to NFL teams (Florida State in the 90s comes to mind immediately), so maybe having a former Georgia defensive coordinator has been a good thing for the Falcons.
Other random thoughts on the game:
1. There are certain universal Atlanta sports experiences. One such experience is bitching about Keith Brooking. Der Wife does so on just about every defensive snap. I watched the first half of the game at the gym today and after Brooking whiffed on a sack when he came in unblocked at Jackson, the guy next to me broke into a tirade that surprised his wife and just about everyone around us. I'll go out on a limb and guess that his reaction was universal, outside of Beau Bock's living room. Going into action today, the Falcons were 22nd in the NFL at defending against opposing tight ends (according to Football Outsiders' numbers). This was before Visanthe Shiancoe exposed the Falcons' defense repeatedly. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Remind me who plays strongside linebacker and is responsible for opposing tight ends? The Falcons came into the game 31st in the NFL against opposing running backs, so it isn't as if Boley and Lofton have covered themselves with glory. The question for Thomas Dimitroff is whether the linebackers are bad in coverage or whether they have tougher coverage assignments because they have to help out a mediocre secondary.
2. Dick Stockton sure does seem excited every time that Matt Ryan makes a play. I always hated Stockton for teaming up with Tommy Heinsohn for the most openly biased announcer pairing in the 80s when they would call Celtics games (at least until the Mike Patrick-Dick Vitale pairing for Duke games), so I have a strange sense of entitlement that Stockton has called a number of Falcons games this year and clearly likes Ryan. I've also enjoyed Brian Billick, who is perfect for the color role. I especially liked Billick today because he was the offensive coordinator for the Vikings when the Falcons upset them in the January 1999 NFC Championship game, so everything he said reminded me of one of my few happy Falcons memories.
3. Speaking of memories, Tarvaris Jackson reminds me of Michael Vick. Same number, same facemask, same running threat, same indecision in the pocket. That last clause aside, Jackson did play very well today. Speaking of Vick, he must have seen the graphic on the Falcons having the fewest dropped passes in the NFL and muttered to himself "must be nice."
4. The Falcons did a great job on Adrian Peterson. Jackson's solid performance had to be an off-shoot of the Falcons paying attention to the Vikings' best player.
5. I'm loving you, Matt Ryan, but please watch out for that rush of blood when you think you're going to hurdle into the end zone. Thanks, the management.