Earlier this season, the Minnesota Vikings were the first-half team -- ending games in frustrating fashion as four straight opponents had second-half comebacks to beat Minnesota.
The Vikings tried to flip the circumstances Sunday at Atlanta. Only this time it was another disappointing finish in a 24-14 road loss. Minnesota is 2-9 this season and has to fight the urge to tack on moral victories.
For the second straight week, the Vikings showed some fight while trailing by double-digits into halftime. Running back Toby Gerhart was stopped for a two-yard loss on fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line with just over four minutes remaining as Minnesota tried to claw back from a 17-0 halftime deficit and the 7-4 Falcons ran out the clock.
Here are five things learned at Atlanta:
1. The shorthanded Vikings can't handle any more injuries, especially in the secondary.
Two weeks ago, Minnesota lost top cornerback Antoine Winfield to a broken clavicle in his first game since Week 4. Last week, running back Adrian Peterson suffered a high ankle sprain and has missed at least one game. Sunday, already depleted in the secondary, the Vikings lost starting cornerback Asher Allen and safety Tyrell Johnson to injuries. Long snapper Cullen Loeffler also left the game with an injury, forcing Jared Allen into emergency duties.
Minnesota had its hands full with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and his stable of receivers already and losing Allen and Johnson didn't help. Ryan completed 79 percent of his passes and three touchdowns without throwing an interception. The shorthanded Vikings couldn't cover receiver Roddy White, who had 10 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown, and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had nine catches for 69 yards.
2. Percy Harvin can provide the spark Minnesota needs.
Between his rib injury and being used in so many different roles this season, receiver Percy Harvin has been a forgotten cog in the every-down offense at times this season. With Peterson out, the Vikings got their best available offensive weapon in Harvin involved to turn the game around in the second half.
Harvin's 104-yard kickoff return got the team right back into the game after Atlanta's only score of the second half. Harvin even appeared to score on a third-down run after the return, but was called short and there was no review before Gerhart's failed fourth-down attempt. Harvin's 39-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter made it a three-point game.
Any hope for this season is long over, but Minnesota can use the remainder of the schedule to figure out how to best use one of their most explosive players. Harvin had eight catches for 95 yards and five rushes for 11 yards.
3. Gerhart is no Peterson.
Gerhart was a second-round draft choice after being a Heisman Trophy runner-up in college, but has had limited opportunities in the NFL while backing up Peterson, perhaps the best back in the league. The two backs run similar plays within Minnesota's offense, but there is little comparison. Peterson's speed, power and vision are unparalleled and Gerhart hasn't been able to generate much success as a lead back. Gerhart runs with a powerful style, but doesn't have the speed to run outside or run away from defenders. Gerhart had 17 carries for 44 yards against the Falcons second-ranked run defense.
4. Ponder didn't give in and the team followed suit.
Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder has certainly made his share of rookie mistakes, but he has displayed resiliency and composure as well. After a tough first half, the defense also rallied after intermission. At halftime, the Falcons had decided advantages in total yards (207-97), time of possession (19:36-10:24) and first downs (15-5). Minnesota didn't cross the 50-yard line until their final drive of the first half when it gained 42 yards in five plays as time ran out. The drive built some momentum for the second half.
After three-and-outs by each team, the Vikings drove 80 yards in 14 plays and Gerhart scored on a one-yard touchdown run. Ponder accounted for 64 yards on the drive, rushing twice for nine yards and was a perfect 6 of 6 passing. Ponder completed 68 percent of his passes (17 of 25) for 186 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked four times, but didn't throw an interception after throwing four in the previous two games.
5. The Vikings' version of Atlanta's offense is missing some aspects.
Bill Musgrave spent five seasons as the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta before taking the offensive coordinator position for Minnesota during the offseason. Much of the reason for hiring Musgrave was the hope he could replicate the Falcons' offense for the Vikings. With Peterson, Minnesota can run the ball as successfully as Atlanta with Michael Turner. Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph are quality tight ends and can mimic Tony Gonzalez's role. Ponder might even one day be able to be a capable athletic quarterback like Ryan.
But in Minnesota's scheme there are glaring differences. The offensive line has not been able to provide Ponder the same time in the pocket Ryan has enjoyed. Minnesota's wide receivers also can't get the same separation Atlanta is used to with White and first-round draft pick Julio Jones. Harvin is a weapon, but is not a prototypical outside receiver.