MINNEAPOLIS -- When Mike Smith took over as coach of the Atlanta Falcons in January, he inherited a team still smarting from Bobby Petrino's defection and sickened by Michael Vick's incarceration.
Less than an hour after watching his team clinch a most unlikely playoff berth, things are coming together much faster than even the white-haired optimist ever could imagine.
Matt Ryan threw for a touchdown and made no big mistakes, Justin Blalock recovered a fumble in the end zone for another score and the Minnesota Vikings committed four turnovers in 24-17 loss on Sunday that clinched a postseason berth for the Falcons.
"We set milestones and we've reached those milestones at a much quicker pace than we had anticipated," Smith said.
Michael Turner rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown for the Falcons (10-5), who were 4-12 a year ago and ended the season without a head coach or a franchise quarterback.
With Smith calling the shots and Ryan's steady hand, the Falcons have that and so much more now.
"It's huge for us," Blalock said. "To come from the beginning of this year, the negative expectations, the negative talk around our camp, it feels pretty good to be here."
Tarvaris Jackson played very well in his second straight start for the Vikings (9-6), who could have clinched their first division title since 2000. Jackson threw for 233 yards and two scores and rushed for 76 yards, but also had a fumble at the Atlanta 16.
Minnesota fumbled the ball seven times and lost four of them.
The league's leading rusher, Adrian Peterson, was held to 76 yards. He lost a fumble inside the Atlanta 20, another one on a botched handoff from Jackson and had one more that he recovered on the final drive.
"I'm hurting right now. It's killing me," Peterson said. "We had a chance to win the NFC North, and we did everything to screw it up today. Including me. Turnovers and things like that. We can't have that. So I'm very disappointed right now."
The Vikings' defense couldn't generate any turnovers of their own, missing their big chance when Ryan helicoptered toward the goal line in the third quarter.
To no surprise to Falcons fans, it was the 6-foot-4, 330-pound Blalock who pounced on the ball instead, giving Atlanta a 24-7 lead late in the third quarter. It was Blalock who beat three Tampa Bay defenders to a fumble by Ryan at midfield last week that extended a drive in a 13-10 win.
"I don't know, the ball just seems to gravitate towards me," Blalock said with a sheepish chuckle.
Jackson, who connected on 11 straight passes at one point, threw two touchdowns to Visanthe Shiancoe, the last a 17-yarder that pulled the Vikings within a touchdown with 2:44 to play.
The Vikings still have a shot at their first NFC North title, needing a Chicago loss in its last two games or a win over the New York Giants next week in the season finale. The Bears host Green Bay on Monday night, then play at Houston.
"We could still get in (Monday) night, depending on what happens with the game," Sharper said. "It's not just about winning to get in, it's winning at the end of the season so you go into the playoffs on a positive note and this was not a positive note for us."
The weekend couldn't have gone better for Atlanta, with Dallas falling to Baltimore at home Saturday night and then Tampa Bay losing to San Diego earlier Sunday.
That paved the way for one of the NFL's most surprising teams to secure a playoff berth at the site of perhaps the franchise's signature victory.
Just less than 10 years ago, the Falcons walked into the thunderous Metrodome as heavy underdogs to Minnesota's offensive machine for the NFC championship game. Those throughout Minnesota still lament Gary Anderson's 38-yard missed field goal in regulation and coach Dennis Green's decision to take a knee at the end of regulation.
Those in Hotlanta surely will never forget Jamal Anderson's "Dirty Bird" and Morten Andersen's 38-yard winning field goal in overtime that propelled the Falcons to their only Super Bowl appearance.
This time around, Turner scored on a 1-yard plunge on the opening drive, Ryan threw an 8-yard shovel pass TD to Jerious Norwood and the Falcons scored 10 points off three Minnesota turnovers in the first half, including a fumbled punt by Bernard Berrian.
"It feels so good," cornerback Chris Houston said. "Just to come from where we came from last year, it's a big step."
- The Vikings sorely missed NT Pat Williams in the middle. Williams missed the game with a fractured shoulder, ending his consecutive games streak at 101.
- Shiancoe had a career-high 136 yards receiving.
- The Falcons allowed only two sacks to a team that was third in the league coming into the game in that category.