ATLANTA — The Falcons were 4-4 when Matt Ryan and his giant and/or fast receivers started converting a ridiculous 65.9 percent of their third downs during a three-game winning streak.
Yes, 65.9 percent (27 of 41).
The Falcons went to Dallas and converted 7 of 13. They went to Seattle, converted 9 of 14 and scored 34 points. They came home, converted 11 of 14 and scored 34 more points against Tampa Bay.
By the time the Vikings showed up on Sunday with their top-ranked third-down defense (28.5 percent), the Falcons led the league with a 48.09 third-down conversion rate.
“We knew it would be a statement game,” Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said.
On the first third-down snap that wasn’t nullified by penalty, Ryan completed a 16-yard pass on third-and-6.
Fifty-five minutes remained at that point. And it would be Atlanta’s last third-down conversion. The Falcons ended the game on an 0-for-9 slide as the Vikings won 14-9 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I thought we had too many third-and-sevens,” Ryan said. “We knew it was going to be tough sledding at times, but we’ve got to be more productive and put ourselves in better positions.”
Actually, half of the Falcons’ third-down situations were worse than third-and-7. They came up short on third-and-17, third-and-13, third-and-12, third-and-10 and third-and-8.
Atlanta faced only two third downs with fewer than 5 yards needed for a first down.
The first one came with the Vikings leading 7-6 with 1:55 left in the first half. Atlanta had the ball at its 49-yard line.
With three receivers bunched to the left side of the offense, Ryan tried to complete a simple screen to Marvin Hall. But even that wouldn’t work on this day as nickel back Mackensie Alexander rushed up and swatted the ball away.
I sought Alexander’s thoughts on what I considered the signature moment in a game decided by its third-down stops. But young Mack is even better at swatting aside nosey reporters.
“Nah, I’m good, but thank you,” he said before appointing safety Harrison Smith as his spokesman.
“That was just a good play right there,” Smith said. “And I think if Mackensie doesn’t make that play, Dejo [safety Andrew Sandejo] makes the tackle before they get the first down. A good example of guys flying around, playing as a unit.”
“That was big,” added linebacker Anthony Barr. “They’re probably thinking, ‘Get at least three points before the half.’ But it didn’t happen for them.”
Atlanta punted and didn’t see the ball again until the second half.
The third quarter opened with the Falcons driving from their 25-yard line to the Vikings’ 29-yard line.
On third-and-3, Ryan threw to Mohamed Sanu for what was ruled an 11-yard catch. But coach Mike Zimmer quickly challenged the play. The call was reversed when replay showed the ball hitting the ground.
“I missed that one,” said Ryan, the reigning league MVP and a guy who doesn’t miss many.
So the Vikings not only were good, they were somewhat lucky on at least one stop. The Falcons settled for the field goal and a 9-7 lead.
“I definitely seen the ball hit the ground,” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who was trailing Sanu on the play. “But, then again, I need to be in tighter coverage. Way tighter coverage. But thank God it hit the ground.”
Meanwhile, the Vikings’ offense, which came in ranked second in third-down conversions (45.64 percent), got hot on third down. After starting the game 2 for 6, they converted three straight and finished 6 for 12.
If indeed this were a proverbial statement game, the Vikings emphatically stated that their defense can travel well and dominate even the hottest third-down offense in the league.
“The Falcons do a lot of different things, and they usually do a good job with them on third down,” Barr said. “But we were really focused today on third down. It really doesn’t matter what team we’re playing. We’re always up to the task.”