ATLANTA — Mike Smith cracked a joke after the Falcons held on for another win that was probably closer than it should've been.
"We make it exciting enough for you?" the Atlanta coach said, managing a smile.
Then he took a swig of water and breathed a sigh of relief. His team held on in a game it absolutely couldn't afford to lose.
Matt Ryan tossed three touchdown passes and the Falcons came through with a goal-line stand after Percy Harvin's 104-yard kickoff return, preserving a 24-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
Atlanta (7-4) had to beat the lowly Vikings to maintain its spot in a tight NFC playoff race. Minnesota (2-9) didn't appear much of a threat without star running back Adrian Peterson, who was sidelined by a sprained left ankle. To make matter worse for the visiting team, three more players went down to injuries in the first half.
The game started according to plan for the Falcons, who raced to a 17-0 lead by halftime. Ryan hooked up with Harry Douglas on a 27-yard touchdown and Roddy White on a 6-yarder. The Vikings had only two first downs and 38 yards until their final possession of the first half, when they padded their numbers a bit against the prevent defense. Even then, Minnesota went to the locker room with five first downs and 97 yards.
Instead of putting the Vikings away, the Falcons let them back in the game.
"We know we're a lot better than that," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "Sooner or later we're going to hit our stride."
Toby Gerhart, filling in for Peterson, scored on a 1-yard run late in the third quarter. Then, after Dominique Franks inadvertently touched a punt the Falcons were trying to run away from, allowing the Vikings to recover, Christian Ponder went to Harvin for a 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-13 to make it 17-14.
Ryan responded with two long completions to White before hitting backup tight end Michael Palmer with a 3-yard touchdown that extended the lead with 6:40 remaining.
Still, the Vikings wouldn't go away.
Harvin took the ensuing kickoff 7 yards deep in the end zone, found a wall of blockers to the right and took off right in front of the Falcons bench. Christopher Owens made a diving tackle at the 3, and that might've saved the Falcons.
"That was the most pivotal play of the game," Smith said. "We were able to put our defense out there and live to play another play."
The Vikings got it to the 1 and decided to go for the touchdown on fourth down. But Sean Weatherspoon burst into the backfield and stuffed Gerhart right after he took the handoff, throwing him for a 2-yard loss. The Falcons ran out the clock.
"When the guy comes screaming off the edge like that, you have no chance," Gerhart said.
The game was a near repeat of Atlanta's performance the previous week against Tennessee, and doesn't bode well for this team — considered a Super Bowl contender before the season — making a long run in the playoffs even if they do get in.
The Falcons built a 20-point lead on the Titans but staggered to the finish, barely preserving a 23-17 win.
Now, another close call.
"At the end of the day, we had more points than they did," Smith said. "That's the most important stat."
Vikings rookie coach Leslie Frazier admitted it was mistake to go for a touchdown on fourth down, instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal that would've made it a one-score game.
"That's purely on me," he said. "I let my emotions get the best of me."
The Vikings looked a lot better over the final two quarters than they did in the first two, though they were still outgained 335-226 in total yards.
"The first half was ugly," Gerhart said. "There's no rhythm. We came back after halftime and wanted to get the ball back and wanted to get a little momentum. Unfortunately, they stopped that momentum at the end of the game."
Ryan completed 27 of 34 for 262 yards and had his best efficiency rating of the season. White, showing signs of turning around a disappointing season, had his second straight big game with 10 catches for 120 yards.
"It's kind of the nature of NFL. Teams execute at a high level and things are going exactly as planned. Then there are times where you don't execute as well as you would like," Ryan said. "The most important thing is how we responded to that and played in the fourth quarter. We did a great job when we needed to score."
Ponder was 17 of 25 for 186 yards but was sacked four times and had to scramble away from pressure several more times. Gerhart managed only 44 yards rushing, while Harvin had eight catches for 95 yards to go along with his big play on the kickoff, which was the longest non-scoring return in the NFL since at least 1991.
Since then, according to STATS LLC, Kevin Faulk in 1999 and Eddie Royal three seasons ago had the longest returns that failed to reach the end zone, each covering 95 yards.
NOTES: Falcons CB Brent Grimes (right knee) went out in the first half and didn't return. ... The Vikings lost S Tyrell Johnson (hamstring), CB Asher Allen (shoulder) and deep snapper Cullen Loeffler (back). DE Jared Allen took over the snapping duties from Loeffler. ... Harvin took advantage when the Falcons dropped linebacker Curtis Lofton into coverage on the fourth-and-13. He had no chance of keeping up with the speedy receiver. "We'll take that matchup every day," Ponder said.