ATLANTA, Georgia // Percy Harvin was streaking down the sideline on one of the NFL's longest kick-off returns, just a few yards from a touchdown.
But Chris Owens never gave up. His hustle may have saved Atlanta's season.
Owens made a diving tackle on Harvin's 104-yard kick-off return, knocking him down, and the Falcons' defence came up with a goal-line stand that preserved a 24-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
"That was the most pivotal play in the ballgame," Mike Smith, the Falcons coach, said. "You can overcome some of your shortcomings and some of the mistakes you make by hustling. That was a great play by Chris Owens."
Harvin settled for the longest non-scoring return in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That hardly made him feel any better.
"I don't know about the stats that I had," Harvin said. "All I know is we have another loss and still have some work to do."
Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns passes as the Falcons (7-4) built a 17-0 lead by half time, then held on desperately the rest of the way. They absolutely could not afford a loss to the Vikings (2-9) given the tight play-off race in the NFC.
Atlanta pulled within a half-game of the division-leading New Orleans Saints, who played the New York Giants last night.
Detroit and Chicago lost this week, so the Falcons are now tied for the wild-card lead with those teams.
It was not pretty for the Falcons, but it was another victory, their fifth in the last six games.
"We will take this win no matter how it comes," Curtis Lofton, the linebacker, said.
Minnesota did not appear much of a threat without Adrian Peterson, the running back who was sidelined by a sprained left ankle. To make matters worse for the visiting team, three more players went down to injuries early on.
Ryan hooked up with Harry Douglas on a 27-yard touchdown and Roddy White on a six-yarder in the first half. The Vikings had only two first downs and 38 yards until their final possession before half time, when they padded their numbers a bit against the prevent defence. Instead of putting the Vikings away in the second half, the Falcons let them back in the game.
"We know we're a lot better than that," Tony Gonzalez, the Atlanta tight end, said. "Sooner or later we're going to hit our stride."
Toby Gerhart, filling in for Peterson, scored on a one-yard run late in the third quarter. Then, after Dominique Franks 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 Michael Palmer, the backup tight end, with a three-yard touchdown that extended the lead with 6:40 remaining.
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 successive big game with 10 catches for 120 yards.
* Associated Press