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throughout the entire playoffs (including the Super Bowl), and other teams around the league had better start taking notice of what’s potentially brewing here in Minnesota.
   First and foremost, I need to acknowledge the incredible performance by the Vikings’ defense last Sunday. The Falcons made it to the Super Bowl last season largely due to their historically potent offense, and all of the main contributors from that team (sans former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan) are still in Atlanta.  The Falcons had scored 95 points in their three previous games (all wins) and seemed to be firing on all cylinders leading into their must-win game against the Vikings. All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones was coming off a 12 reception, 253 yard, two touchdown game — I’m not positive this guy is human — and all signs pointed to the Falcons getting their swagger back just in time to make a playoff push.

   Instead, Jones and the Falcons were completely shut down by the perpetually-underrated Vikings defense. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was matched up in man-to-man coverage with Jones all over the field last Sunday. He held Julio to two catches for 24 yards. This wasn’t the first time this season Rhodes has shut down a premium wide receiver, either. He has held Pro Bowlers Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and Julio Jones to a combined 198 yards and zero touchdowns in four dominant performances. “Rhodes closed,” indeed. 
   It wasn’t all Rhodes last Sunday, however. The Vikings consistently generated a solid pass rush that gave reigning league MVP quarterback Matt Ryan happy feet and forced him to unload the ball before routes could develop. Defensive end Everson Griffen was a fixture in the Atlanta backfield all day, and the Vikings were able to consistently get Atlanta’s offense off the field on third down, holding the Falcons to a 1-10 third down conversion rate.
   The win improved the Vikings’ record to 10-2, which would give them the No. 1 seed in the NFC if the playoffs started today (by virtue of a strength-of-schedule tiebreaker over the Eagles). Because the Super Bowl is in Minneapolis this February, the Vikings could realistically earn a first-round bye and never have to leave Minnesota during the playoffs if they keep winning. 
   I can’t believe I’m writing this, but if the Vikings can win this Sunday in Carolina, they will clinch the NFC North Division championship with three games left on the schedule. I understand we are talking about the Vikings here, and like many of you, I’m waiting for the clock to strike midnight and for Case Keenum, our dreams of a home game in the Super Bowl, and the Vikings in general to revert to their usual heartbreaking pumpkin-like forms. I’m well-aware of this team’s history. However, with each passing week and mounting victory, it gets more and more difficult to be a skeptic. This Vikings team is a legitimate contender and I’m starting to believe in them.

“Rhodes closed” for Julio Jones, Falcons

   Last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings went into the glitzy new Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and emerged with a huge 14-9 win over the defending NFC champions. This was a statement game for the Vikings, who somehow still don’t seem to be gaining national media traction as contenders despite being tied with the Patriots and Eagles for the best record in the NFL. However, by shutting down the explosive Falcons on the road, the Vikings now have a realistic path to home field advantage

By Andy Thayer