ATLANTA -- The Falcons' surging offense was held without a touchdown for the first time in nearly two years in their 14-9 loss to the Vikings on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but their scoring troubles can really be linked back to an inability to convert on third down.
In the loss, the Falcons' offense converted on just one of their 10 third-down opportunities. The Vikings (10-2), meanwhile, gained a first down on six of their 12 third-down situations, allowing them to sustain long drives and ultimately break through for a late touchdown that would be the difference in the game.
"We knew it was going to be an all-day fight with Minnesota, we expected that coming in," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said after the game. "As the game turned out, some missed chances on third down, on both sides of the ball, was really the factor in this game. Offensively, not being able to convert on some of the third downs and defensively, them extending some drives I thought was the real story of this game."
Entering Sunday, Atlanta (7-5) had been converting 65.85 percent of its third downs during its three-game win streak. The Falcons' third-down conversion rate of 48.09 percent was the best in the NFL through the first 12 weeks, but it was slowed down by a Vikings' defense that had the league's best third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 28.47 percent of the time.
"I thought third down was a real factor in this game on both sides," Quinn said. "Our inability to convert some … it looked like we had some opportunities, and I'll found out if there were some drops or what took place for that to happen. I thought early on we'd be able to move it effectively and do something on third down, that's why we went for it early on a fourth. That's been a strength of ours over the last few weeks, and it certainly was not today."
Throughout the week, Quinn spoke of the matchup between the Falcons' offense and the Vikings' defense as being "strength versus strength." Solid play on Minnesota's part, couple with some ill-timed penalties and missed chances, limited Atlanta to 275 yards of offense and just 173 yards through the air.
Defensively, the Falcons contained the Vikings for much of the afternoon, despite missing cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Brian Poole. A long 15-play, 89-yard drive in the third quarter allowed the Vikings to take the lead and ultimately win the game.
"It certainly didn't feel that way coming in, so that's why we want to go back and look at that tonight to find exactly why we weren't effective on our third downs," Quinn said when asked if Minnesota did anything different defensively than what they expected. "On the other side of it, their offense against our defense, we didn't feel there was anything too abnormal or too unusual. For them to hit over 50 percent [on third down], a couple of them were of the short-yardage variety and we'll certainly go back to look at those."
Sunday's loss prevented the Falcons from strengthening their hold on a possible playoff spot, but it's in no way a death blow to their postseason hopes. A four-game stretch against division foes, including two games against the Saints and one game against the Panthers, will determine Atlanta's destiny in 2017.
To capitalize on the opportunity in front of them, Quinn said the Falcons need to correct the third-down struggles that plagued them against the Vikings.
"For us to have that disappointing of a night on third down, I'm anxious to watch that tonight and find out, because we had hit our stride in a number of spots, especially on third down," Quinn said. "For us tonight to take a step back, we've got to make that up moving forward. "At the end of the day, the missed opportunities on both sides on third down I thought was a real factor in this game. I thought both teams did a good job going after the ball, taking care of it, but I thought [third down] was where the game was won and lost."