By Adesina O. Koiki
ATLANTA – Almost every Sunday that he spent playing football while growing up just outside of Atlanta, Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon mimicked the “Dirty Bird” celebration popularized by Falcons great, Jamal Anderson, during the team’s magical run to the Super Bowl in 1998. On Sunday, McKinnon was able to live out one of his childhood dreams: scoring a touchdown in his hometown and doing the Dirty Bird in the end zone afterward.
The childhood Falcons fan ended up doing it at the Falcons expense.
McKinnon, who starred at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia, before embarking on a record-setting career as a quarterback and running back at Georgia Southern, scored on a two-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter as part of the Minnesota Vikings’ 14-9 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota’s eighth straight victory.
The only touchdown of the first half was scored by the Marietta-born McKinnon, who caught a short pass in the right flat early in the second quarter and turned it up to score and give the Vikings a 7-3 lead. His touchdown ended up being half of the touchdowns scored in the entire game as Minnesota (10-2), after Philadelphia lost later in the day at Seattle, moves into the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff picture with a quarter of the season to play.
“Very special, it’s just a blessing,” said McKinnon about winning in his return to Atlanta. “It’s good to be back. Good to get a ‘W.’ It’s probably one of the biggest wins for me in the season, so I’m very thankful.”
After his score, McKinnon broke out the dance that was all the rage in Atlanta two decades ago when the Falcons ended up appearing in their first Super Bowl.
“Definitely,” exclaimed McKinnon to the Florida-Georgia Star when asked if he had planned to do the dance if he scored. “I grew up watching the Atlanta Falcons and Jamal Anderson doing the Dirty Bird. I wanted to do it two years ago when we played here, and I didn’t get the chance. I got a chance today, so I did it.”
Unlike McKinnon and Minnesota, the Falcons were not able to celebrate any touchdowns, held out of the end zone and just settling for three Matt Bryant Field goals. After throwing for at least 200 yards in a NFL-record 64 consecutive games, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was held under that mark for the second time in three weeks, only throwing for 173 yards passing on 16-of-29 passing.
“We knew it was going to be an all-day fight with Minnesota,” said Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. “We expected that coming in, and as the game turned out, some missed chances on third down on both sides of the ball were really the factor in this game. Offensively, not being able to convert on some of the third downs and, defensively, [Minnesota] extended some drives. I thought was the real story of this game.”
Atlanta only converted one of their 10 third-down attempts, the main reason why the Falcons were forced to attempt field goals after promising drives in the first half. Bryant kicked a 38-yard field goal on the Falcons’ first drive of the game – a drive that lasted 15 plays and took 7:24 off the clock – to give Atlanta a 3-0 lead in the first quarter. After McKinnon’s touchdown early in the second, the Falcons scored on the ensuing drive as Bryant converted on a 36-yarder to cut Atlanta’s deficit to 7-6.
“I thought we had too many third-and-sevens,” said Ryan. “I think one of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn’t do a good job of that.”
The lack of third-down conversions haunted the Falcons on the opening drive of the second half. Atlanta moved the ball from its own 25 to the Minnesota 29, but then faced a third-and-three. Ryan threw a low pass that initially was ruled a completion to Mohamed Sanu for 11 yards, but, after a Vikings challenge, the call was reversed to an incomplete pass after the ball had clearly touched the ground before Sanu possessed the ball.
Bryant then came on to nail his third field goal of the game, a 47-yard field goal to give the Falcons a 9-7 lead.
Later in the third, the Vikings retook the lead on a 15-play drive that started with more than eight minutes left in the third quarter and ended on the first play of the fourth quarter. On that play which kicked off the fourth, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum threw a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph to give Minnesota a 14-9 lead.
Keenum not only outdueled Ryan from the quarterback spot, but he was literally perfect in the second half. Keenum completed all 13 of his passes in the final two quarters for 117 yards as he completed his final 15 passes of the game, going back to the second quarter.
Later in the fourth quarter, the Falcons drove to the Minnesota 33-yard line with just over five minutes left in the game, but then were faced with a fourth-and-four from the Vikings’ 27. Instead of going for it, Quinn decided to send in the field goal unit to trim Atlanta’s deficit to two. Bryant, who had made all three of his prior field goals, then missed the 47-yarder wide left.
“I certainly did,” said Quinn when asked if he thought about going for it on fourth down. “Our inability on third down at that point, I thought we really would get a good kick by Matt, get a stop, and go down and win it. That’s the way I chose to do it. I thought we had five minutes, plenty of time-outs to win the game that way. That was the strategy we chose, and it didn’t work out.”
That strategy completely backfired, as the Vikings, even with Atlanta possessing two timeouts and the two-minute warning, were able to bleed the final 4:58 on their final drive. The backbreaking play was a third-down conversion on a Keenum pass to wide receiver Adam Thielen for 22 yards to the Atlanta 21-yard line. A first-down run from running back Latavius Murray two plays later sealed the game right at the two-minute warning with the Falcons having spent their two remaining timeouts.
Atlanta falls to 7-5 and, with Seattle’s win on Sunday night, is now the seventh seed in the NFC, and a game out of a Wild Card spot. The team has a short turnaround until its next game, a Thursday night home game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the NFC South leaders New Orleans Saints at 8:25 PM EST.