With a fresh start and little to lose, the Atlanta Falcons played like it from start to finish.
The Minnesota Vikings made a big mistake on their very first play and simply never recovered.
Julio Jones returned from injury to catch two of Matt Ryan’s four touchdown passes, as the Falcons beat the Vikings 40-23 on Sunday for their first victory of the season — one week after the firing of head coach Dan Quinn.
The Falcons (1-5) turned three interceptions into 17 points and built a 20-0 lead at the break that proved to be solid enough for even this falter-prone bunch. The ever-popular Quinn might have found himself wondering just why this team hadn’t played like this yet this year.
“I can’t worry about where it’s been. I’ve just got to worry about where it’s going,” said interim coach Raheem Morris, who was given the game ball afterward.
Kirk Cousins was picked off three times in the first half for the first time in his career, and the depleted Vikings (1-5) surrendered 40-plus points for the second time this year after going five straight seasons without any such games. Two of Minnesota’s last three games were one-point losses to still-undefeated teams, lending confidence for a turnaround.
“It’s hard for me to figure out how we can continue to get better and play like we did a week ago and then play as poorly as we did this week,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “We didn’t do very many things right, and we’ve got to get it fixed.”
After another injury left the Vikings with only rookies available at cornerback for more than half of the game, Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 371 yards to rebound from a three-week stretch during which he only found the end zone once.
“It shows what we’re capable of doing. We just need to find a way to be at that level week in and week out,” Ryan said.
Jones, who missed all but one half of the previous three games with hamstring trouble, had eight receptions for 137 yards. Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst each chipped in a touchdown catch and Younghoe Koo kicked four field goals for the Falcons, who held leads of 15 points over Dallas and 16 points on Chicago past the midpoint of the fourth quarter earlier this season and lost both. There are still several players remaining from the Super Bowl less than four years ago, when they blew a 28-3 advantage and lost to New England.
“We’re a real tough team. We always have been. No matter what, we just don’t fold,” said linebacker Deion Jones, who picked off a dangerous into-a-crowd pass by Cousins for Justin Jefferson on Minnesota’s first play from scrimmage.
A.J. Terrell later snagged his first career interception, also intended for Jefferson. Foyesade Oluokun got one, too, in Atlanta’s first first-half shutout in 12 games since Nov. 17, 2019, at Carolina. From the opening kickoff in Minnesota’s empty stadium, the Falcons played with an obvious energy embodying the upbeat Morris.
Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich was promoted to fill his defensive coordinator role, after Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were dismissed. The strategy was superb for a group that entered the game in the bottom five in the league in most of the major statistical categories.
“The guys really did a good job of dictating terms and showing disguise and coming out and really confusing them a little bit to get themselves in position to make great plays,” Morris said.
Cousins became the first Minnesota quarterback with three first-half interceptions since Daunte Culpepper on Dec. 1, 2002, also against Atlanta. The
“The first one was the worst one, if you will,” said Cousins, who finished 24 for 36 for 343 yards and three touchdowns. He added: “That’s a mistake I may have made in year one.”
Jefferson had nine receptions for 166 yards and two touchdowns, the lone bright spot for the Vikings while the NFL’s leading rusher, Dalvin Cook, sat out with a groin injury. The Vikings netted only 32 rushing yards after racking up 201 rushing yards at Seattle the week before. Trailing 10-0 early in the second quarter, Mike Boone was stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Falcons: DE Takk McKinley (groin) was sidelined for the third time in four games. He played only five snaps last week.
Vikings: CB Mike Hughes (neck) departed in the second quarter with the injury that kept him out of two recent games, leaving the Vikings with only three available players at CB: rookie starters Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler and backup Harrison Hand. CB Holton Hill (foot) was inactive for the second straight game.
Falcons: Host Detroit on Oct. 25.
Vikings: Visit Green Bay on Nov. 1, after their bye week.