Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith stresses each week to his defense to tear the ball away from the carrier. Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings received a painful reminder of how critical it is to keep that old pigskin from popping out.
Matt Ryan and Michael Turner helped build an early lead, left guard Justin Blalock recovered Ryan's fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, the Vikings lost four of their seven fumbles, and the Falcons clinched a playoff spot with a 24-17 victory on Sunday.
"We want to attack the football every opportunity we have," Smith said. "Whether a player has had fumbles or not, it's the game plan every week. ... Second and third guy in, we try to get that ball out."
Peterson lost a fumble at the Atlanta 17 and botched a handoff from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson that the Falcons also recovered. Jackson coughed one up during a sack on a play at the Atlanta 16, and the Falcons turned that into a field goal. Earlier in the first half, Bernard Berrian muffed a punt return that quickly led to an Atlanta touchdown.
The Vikings (9-6) missed their chance to clinch the NFC North.
"If we take care of the football, I feel like we've got this game won easy," Jackson said.
The Falcons (10-5) weren't complaining.
"We set milestones, and we've reached those milestones at a much quicker pace than we had anticipated," Smith said.
Smith inherited a 4-12 team reeling from quarterback Michael Vick's imprisonment and coach Bobby Petrino's hasty departure and has them surging into the postseason. Turner rushed for 70 yards and a score. Ryan, despite his dangerous dive toward the goal line that created his third-quarter fumble, played another decent game far beyond his 23 years.
"I'm new to this. I've never been in the playoffs and never had the opportunity to play in a game that could get you there," said Ryan, who went 13-for-24 for 134 yards and a touchdown pass to Jerrious Norwood. "So I was excited and fired up."
The Vikings whiffed on their big chance to counter the turnovers.
Ryan helicoptered toward the end zone on a scramble from second-and-goal at the 5, but after Ben Leber jarred the ball loose Darren Sharper let it roll through his legs after trying to pick it up and run forward. Cedric Griffin couldn't secure it, either, and Blalock pounced on it for seven points and a 24-7 lead late in the third quarter.
"It was right there for me," Sharper said. "There is no excuse."
Jackson, who connected on 11 straight passes at one point, was otherwise sharp. He threw two touchdowns to Visanthe Shiancoe, who had a career-high 136 yards receiving. The second one was a 17-yarder that pulled Minnesota within a touchdown with 2:44 to play. Jackson finished with 233 yards passing and 76 yards rushing, but that was no consolation on a day the Vikings were forced to wait another day - or perhaps another week - to seal a spot in the playoffs.
If Chicago loses Monday to Green Bay or next week at Houston, the Vikings win the division. They can also beat the New York Giants, who have locked up the top seed, at home next week and get in.
"We need the Bears to blow it. Hopefully they will. Where they playing? At home?" Wade said.
"Great. They're definitely going to blow it," Wade said, smiling.
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. Then Carolina lost to the Giants, leaving the NFC South, the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye still undecided.
If the Falcons beat St. Louis at home and the Panthers lose at New Orleans, they will win the division.
"It feels so good," cornerback Chris Houston said. "Just to come from where we came from last year, it's a big step."