ATLANTA — Perhaps the most intriguing storyline entering Sunday's contest between the Vikings and Falcons was that both teams entered the game as the top two third-down offenses in the NFL.
And while Minnesota had the second-best third-down offense, the Vikings also countered with the league's best third-down defense.
The Vikings controlled play on both sides of the ball to get their eighth straight win, a gritty 14-9 victory over the Falcons.
"I don't know the final stats, but I think we held them pretty decent," said Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. "It was enough to win.
"If you're good on third down and in the red zone, the offense can run the ball like that in the end and win the game," Smith added.
Atlanta converted its first third-down try of the game in the opening quarter. But the Vikings defense dominated the rest of the way as they didn't allow the Falcons to convert on their next nine opportunities.
The Falcons, who had been successful 48.1 percent of the time on third downs, were just 1-for-10 against the league's best defense.
"That's pretty good, I guess," Smith quipped.
Whether it was stuffing the run, forcing an incompletion or tackling a ball carrier short of the marker, everyone stepped up for Minnesota's defense.
Atlanta's averaged distance to go on third down was more than eight yards.
"We had a good idea what they were going to do and kept that confidence and communication," said Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks. "We just played well.
"We had a good grasp of it, we got them in third-and-long, third-and-favorable situations for us," Kendricks said. "We got off the field."
Added Smith: "Guys were flying around, playing well and playing as a unit. They were doing some good things on first and second down, some good routes and things. Third downs are big."
While the Falcons sputtered down the stretch, the Vikings only got stronger, especially on offense.
Minnesota converted two of its first five third-down tries. But the Vikings bore down in the second half, and were successful on four of their next seven opportunities.
The Vikings finished 6-for-12 on the crucial down … and 6-for-11 if you take away a kneel-down by Vikings quarterback Case Keenum on the final play of regulation.
Minnesota was successful on all three tries on a key 89-yard touchdown drive that put the Vikings ahead for good early in the fourth quarter.
Keenum found wide receivers Laquon Treadwell and Jarius Wright to move the chains before running back Latavius Murray bulled his way for another first down.
That led to a 6-yard touchdown pass from Keenum to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
"Really, the difference in the ball game was probably the third-down conversions for each team, and then we scored touchdowns in the red zone, and they didn't score any," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said.
Zimmer credited Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur for putting an extra emphasis on crucial situations such as third down and finding the end zone in the red zone.
"We do a good job scheming up, and Pat does a good job scheming those things up," Zimmer said. "As I've said before, if you go back and look at year ago, we had penalties in the red zone, we had third-down conversions that we didn't convert, and we ended up kicking field goals.
"And this year, which we made a huge emphasis in the offseason about third-down conversions in the red zone and making sure we do an extra emphasis on the red zone this year," Zimmer added.
Rudolph mentioned that the Vikings did extensive work on third downs and third downs in the red zone during the team's two practices over its bye week.
"It's been a point of emphasis," Rudolph said. "You look at us on offense and defense, they're holding teams, stopping them on third downs, holding them to field goals, and we're converting third downs and scoring touchdowns."
Said Murray: "When we get down there, we know we need to put six on the board."
That was only possible thanks to clutch third-down performances multiple times in the second half, including a 21-yard strike from Keenum to Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen that essentially salted the game away in the final minutes.
And combined with a ferocious Minnesota defense that kept the high-flying Falcons in check all day, it was more than enough to see the Vikings improve to 10-2.
"I didn't think we'd go 1-for-10, but we always put emphasis on third downs. It's always a big part of the game," Zimmer said. "We were 6-for-11 on offense for third downs, and that ended up being a big factor in the game."