ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons know how to build a big lead against an overmatched opponent.
Makings things easy at the end? That's another story.
Matt Ryan tossed three touchdown passes and the Atlanta defense came through with a goal-line stand after Percy Harvin's 104-yard kickoff return, preserving a 24-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
This one should have been much easier for the Falcons (7-4). Minnesota (2-9) was without star running back Adrian Peterson, who didn't play because of a sprained left ankle, and the Vikings lost three more players to injuries in the first half.
Atlanta raced to a 17-0 lead by halftime. Ryan hooked up with Harry Douglas on a 27-yard touchdown and Roddy White on a 6-yarder. The Vikings had only two first downs and 38 yards until their final possession of the first half, when they padded their numbers a bit against the prevent defense. Still, Minnesota went to the locker room with five first downs and 97 yards.
Instead of putting the Vikings away, the Falcons let them back in the game.
Toby Gerhart, filling in for Peterson, scored on a 1-yard run late in the third quarter. Then, after Dominique Franks inadvertently touched a punt the Falcons were trying to run away from, allowing the Vikings to recover, Christian Ponder went to Harvin for a 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-13 to make it 17-14.
Ryan responded with two long completions to White before hitting backup tight end Michael Palmer with a 3-yard touchdown that extended the lead with 6:40 remaining.
Still, the Vikings wouldn't go away.
Harvin took the ensuing kickoff 7 yards deep in the end zone, found a wall of blockers to the right and took off right in front of the Falcons bench. Christopher Owens dived to make a saving tackle at the 3, and that might've saved the Falcons.
The Vikings got it to the 1 and decided to go for the touchdown on fourth down. But Sean Weatherspoon burst into the backfield and stuffed Gerhart right after he took the handoff, throwing him for a 2-yard loss. The Falcons ran out the clock and breathed a big sigh of relief.
The game was a near repeat of Atlanta's performance the previous week against Tennessee, and doesn't bode well for this team — considered a Super Bowl contender before the season — making a long run in the playoffs even if they do get in.
The Falcons built a 20-point lead on the Titans but staggered to the finish, barely preserving a 23-17 win.
Now, another close call.
Ryan completed 27 of 34 for 262 yards. White, showing signs of turning around a disappointing season, had his second straight big game with 10 catches for 120 yards.
Ponder was 17 of 25 for 186 yards but was sacked four times and had to scramble away from pressure several more times. Gerhart managed only 44 yards, while Harvin had eight catches for 95 yards to go along with his big return.
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