Atlanta, GA (Sports Network) - Matt Ryan threw his third touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to give Atlanta some cushion, and the Falcons defense followed with a goal-line stand to secure a 24-14 victory over the Vikings on Sunday.
"Did we make it exciting enough for you?" Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said.
Ryan completed 27-of-34 passes for 262 yards to help the Falcons (7-4) stay in the thick of the NFC South race. They entered Sunday a game behind the New Orleans Saints, who host the New York Giants on Monday night.
Atlanta got off to a dominant start against Minnesota, racing out to a 17-0 halftime lead.
But Christian Ponder and the Vikings' offense overcame that slow start to get back into the game. He completed a long touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to Percy Harvin, who also nearly returned a kickoff for a touchdown after Ryan's scoring pass to Michael Palmer had given the Falcons a 24-14 advantage with 6:40 to play.
Harvin reached the Atlanta three-yard line on the return, but the Falcons stopped Toby Gerhart on 4th-and-goal from the one to send the Vikings (2-9) to their third consecutive loss.
Gerhart finished with 44 yards on 17 carries, running in place of the injured Adrian Peterson, who missed the game with a high ankle sprain.
"It doesn't feel good. It's getting repetitive but I have to say I am proud of this team," Ponder said of the loss. "They played for four quarters. Our offense didn't really show up in the first half and we've really got to show up for the whole four quarters."
Minnesota started to erase the halftime deficit with its second possession after the break. Ponder converted three third downs during the drive -- one with a five-yard scramble, another with a short pass to Allen Reisner, and the last with a 20-yard strike to Harvin.
The long pass preceded Gerhart's one-yard run across the goal line, which capped the nearly eight-minute possession.
Minnesota was forced to punt on its next touch, but caught a break when Falcons returner Dominique Franks muffed the catch. The Vikings recovered at the Atlanta 36 and reached the end zone again in four plays.
The drive didn't get off to an auspicious start. Vikings tight end Jim Kleinsasser was called for a false start, and they ended up facing a 4th- and-13 after Ponder's short completion to Gerhart was overturned.
But Ponder bounced back by hitting Harvin in the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown. Harvin simply sprinted up the field, past every Falcons defender in his coverage area, and made the reception, which was upheld upon review.
The touchdown brought the Vikings within 17-14 with 13:13 still to play.
But Atlanta restored some of its control with a touchdown drive later in the quarter. The big play was a 23-yard pass from Ryan to Roddy White, who was pushed out of bounds at the Minnesota seven. It converted a third down and helped set up Ryan's TD pass to Palmer on the left side of the field.
The dangerous Harvin fielded the kickoff and squeezed between several sets of defenders as he raced up the field, though it was more like he was too fast for the Falcons' special teams players to get a hand on him.
Only Christopher Owens was able to catch Harvin with a diving tackle at the three. But Ponder was then sacked for a two-yard loss before Harvin ran twice for four yards. Gerhart got the ball up the middle, but was stopped by Sean Weatherspoon.
Falcons defensive end Lawrence Sidbury said their goal line stand "speaks volumes about our defense."
"Christopher Owens exploded through the back side and made a tackle at the three-yard line that gave our defense a chance to make stops," he said. "That motivated the whole defense to bear down and win the game for our team."
Atlanta ran out the final 4:16 to cement the close game, which began like it would be a Falcons blowout. They scored on three of their five possessions in the first half, and forced the Vikings to punt four times.
Ryan found Harry Douglas for a 27-yard TD with 6:08 left in the first quarter, and his six-yard scoring pass to White in the back of the end zone made it a 14-0 game with 4:04 remaining in the half.
Atlanta got the ball back with two minutes remaining after the Vikings went three-and-out, and got in position for a 37-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
The Falcons held a 207-97 advantage in total yards during the first half, and 335-226 for the game...Ponder completed 17-of-25 passes for 186 yards...White had 10 receptions for 120 yards. It was his first 10-catch game of the season, and third 100-yard performance.