Falcons hope to match expectations against Vikings
ATLANTA (AP) -- The Atlanta Falcons are doing pretty well on offense.
That's hardly what they expected.
This team was supposed to be unstoppable with the ball in its hands, especially after adding Julio Jones to a unit that already had six Pro Bowlers.
But the points haven't come quite as easily as everyone expected.
"It's time for us to start turning that corner as an offense," said tight end Tony Gonzalez, one of those Pro Bowlers from a season ago. "If you're a good team, a playoff-type team, the type of team that hopefully can be a Super Bowl team, it's that time of year."
Indeed, the Falcons (6-4) need to shift into another gear, starting with Sunday's can't-lose game against the Minnesota Vikings (2-8). Solid just won't cut it anymore. This offense needs to reach its full potential if Atlanta is going to have any chance to not only make the playoffs, but put in more than a one-and-done appearance.
"Maybe we're not where we expected to be," said running back Michael Turner, yet another Pro Bowler. "We just need to peak at the right time. Nobody is panicking right now. You want to peak at the right time and hopefully get to the playoffs and roll right on through. Like the Packers. You want to get hot at the right time. It's not necessarily about being hot from week one."
From a statistical point of view, the Falcons have hardly been slouches when it's their ball. They are 12th in total yards (369 per game), 14th in scoring (23.5), 10th in rushing yards (120.6) and 11th in passing efficiency -- all within the upper half of the league rankings.
But Atlanta expected more -- much more -- after dealing a hefty package of picks so they could draft Jones at No. 6 overall. He was supposed to be the missing link, an explosive receiver joining a unit that already included Gonzalez, Turner, quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White, tackle Tyson Clabo and fullback Ovie Mughelli.
Injuries have been an issue. Jones has missed three games and part of another with hamstring issues. Mughelli is out for the year. Still, even when the offense was at full strength, it wasn't quite clicking like everyone expected. And no one is sure why.
"Underachieving" is Gonzalez's blunt assessment. "We have been making plays," he said. "We're just not putting touchdowns in there, at least not the last couple of games. That's all the more reason to say it's time to turn that corner."
Problems in the red zone are the latest trouble spot. The Falcons have gotten within 20 yards of the end zone 11 times in the past two weeks, but have only come away with four touchdowns. In last Sunday's victory over Tennessee, that lack of efficiency nearly cost Atlanta a game it largely dominated.
The Falcons held on for a 23-17 victory that should've been much easier, largely because they settled for three field goals and fumbled on another drive inside the Titans 10.
"We've got to stop kicking field goals and get in the end zone," White said. "We've got to take advantage of our chances to get a really big lead instead of letting the other team have a chance to win at the end of the game. We want to go out there and dominate. We want to get down there and score touchdowns."
The Vikings will settle for a win.
Just two years after nearly reaching the Super Bowl, Minnesota is heading for another dismal season. There's no talk of peaking for the playoffs, only trying to build some momentum for next season.
"Misery loves company, and we're going to make a bunch of people miserable along the way," defensive end Jared Allen vowed.
Brave words, but there's no doubt that first-year coach Leslie Frazier has his work cut out to make sure the Vikings don't pack it in down the stretch.
"You know what? Losing (stinks). What else can you say?" Allen moaned. "You've just got to come in, work harder and try to get the job done."
The only thing I can do is my part and leave it at that. I try not to focus on circumstances here. I have more important things to worry about than wins and losses."
At the moment, the Vikings' most pressing concern is the health of running back Adrian Peterson. He sustained a high ankle sprain in last week's loss to Oakland, and there's little incentive to rush back the face of the franchise in the midst of a lost season.
Toby Gerhart was likely to start in Peterson's place, and receiver Percy Harvin could get more carries out of the backfield.
"I played running back up until 12th grade in high school," Harvin said. "I just think it adds another dimension to this team."
The Falcons know they can't slip up this week, not against these guys.
"I've been on that side of the fence before as far as playing on a team that's struggling," Gonzalez said. "I remember going into games where you just wanted to keep it even at the beginning. If we can go out there and jump on them pretty early, maybe the mentality comes in, 'Hey, here we go again.'"
With its major goals out of reach, Minnesota is focusing on smaller objectives.
"At this point, it's always tough for maybe outsiders or people who aren't around sports to understand what the mentality is at this point of the season," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "But for us as a team, it's never more important to bond together."
If the Vikings can do that, this season could be the jumping-off point for a successful season in 2012.
"Our focus the next six weeks is going out there and playing for each other and not necessarily worrying about what anybody is saying about the Vikings and how bad we are or how little chance we have to be good the rest of the way," Greenway said. "Let's try and win all six games on the way out. How great of a feeling would that be after the way things have gone to win out like that. We can do that and we can get some real positive things going."