Vikings using past failures as roadmap to playoffs

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Given enough time — say, a season — there is life after a collapse. Look first at the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons started 5-0 in 2015 before falling apart and finishing 8-8. The next season they made it to the Super Bowl.

The Vikings began last season 5-0 before also finishing 8-8. This season, they are 9-2 and three games up in the NFC North with the second-best record in the conference.

Minnesota plays at Atlanta on Sunday, Dec. 2, in a battle of recent bounce-back teams. Defensive end Brian Robison said the Vikings haven’t looked at the Falcons’ comeback for any addition motivation, but that their 2016 collapse has become a teaching moment.

“We started 5-0 last year and were clicking on all cylinders, and obviously we had a lot of injuries and things like that, but down the stretch we had some ballgames we were in that we very easily could have won and just weren’t able to finish it off,” he said Monday. “For us, I think it helps us focus this year. I also think it helps us realize it doesn’t matter how many games you win, it can go south real quick if you don’t stay focused.”

The Vikings haven’t shown any signs of a repeat collapse this season. They have won seven straight after a 2-2 start.

“I think we learned a lot from that experience (last year), and I think we’re better for it,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “It built us stronger.”

How much stronger, the Vikings could find out in the next two weeks. After facing Atlanta (7-4), which has looked good in three consecutive wins, they play the following week at Carolina (8-3), which has won four straight.

Playoff positioning is on the line. The Vikings trail Philadelphia (10-1) by one game in the battle for the NFC’s top seed but want to at least secure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

The Vikings are one game ahead of the Panthers, New Orleans (8-3) and Los Angeles Rams (8-3) and hold tiebreakers with wins over the Saints and Rams. The next two games will help determine the Vikings’ seed.

“It makes it fun having meaningful games this time of the year,” Barr said.

Minnesota is hoping to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium; Super Bowl LII is Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium. Cornerback Terence Newman alluded to that when asked if the Vikings are looking to play their best ball in December.

“I would say that I’d rather play my best football in January and February, but December’s just as important because you have to get to January and February,” Newman said.

As far as Newman is concerned, the Vikings haven’t accomplished much yet.

“It’s only special after the season when you win a Super Bowl,” he said. “Right now, we’ve still got work to do. … We’ve got five games left, and things we want to do are still ahead of us. We haven’t done it yet. Nothing’s done other than the fact we’ve won nine games.”

Getting to 10 will be a challenge at first-year Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After a 4-4 start, the Falcons are looking more like the team last reached the Super Bowl last season, losing 34-28 in overtime to New England.

The offense has averaged 31.7 points during the three-game winning streak and is finding its groove under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who took over when Kyle Shanahan left to become San Francisco head coach. In Sunday’s 34-20 victory over Tampa Bay, Tevin Coleman rushed for 97 yards, Matt Ryan passed for 317 yards, and Julio Jones caught 12 passes for 253 yards.

“We’re going to try our best to go out there and make it tough for Matty and try to stop Julio and the receivers,” said Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who will cover Jones on Sunday.

The Vikings last played Atlanta on Nov. 29, 2015, at the Georgia Dome and won 20-10 — smack dab in the middle of the Falcons’ late-season swoon.

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