Percy Harvin was streaking down the sideline on one of the NFL's longest kickoff returns, just a few yards from a touchdown.
Chris Owens never gave up.
His hustle may have saved Atlanta's season. Owens made a diving tackle on Harvin's 104-yard kickoff return, knocking him down at the 3, and the Falcons' defense 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," Falcons coach Mike Smith 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 halftime, then held on desperately the rest of the way. They absolutely couldn't afford a loss to the Vikings (2-9) given the tight playoff race in the NFC.
Atlanta pulled within a half-game of division-leading New Orleans, which plays the New York Giants on Monday night. Detroit and Chicago lost this week, so the Falcons are now tied for the wild-card lead with those teams.
There's only two spots available.
No wonder the Falcons weren't too worried about style points.
It wasn't pretty, but it was another victory, their fifth in the last six games.
"We will take this win no matter how it comes," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "As much as we like to blow a team out, we understand that can't happen all the time. The concerning part for me is our consistency throughout the game. We have to figure out a way to put four good quarters together, rather than in chunks."
Minnesota didn't appear much of a threat without star running back Adrian Peterson, 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 6-yarder in the first half. The Vikings had only two first downs and 38 yards until their final possession before halftime, when they padded their numbers a bit against the prevent defense.
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," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "Sooner or later we're going to hit our stride."
Toby Gerhart, filling in for Peterson, scored on a 1-yard run late in the third quarter. Then, after Dominique Franks inadvertently 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 backup tight end Michael Palmer with a 3-yard touchdown that extended the lead with 6:40 remaining.
Still, the Vikings wouldn't go away.
Harvin took the ensuing kickoff 7 yards deep in the end zone, found a wall of blockers to the right and took off right in front of the Falcons bench. Owens chased him down.
The Vikings got 2 yards in three plays and decided to go for the touchdown. But Sean Weatherspoon darted into the backfield and stuffed Gerhart right after he took the handoff, throwing him for a 2-yard loss. The Falcons ran out the clock.
"When the guy comes screaming off the edge like that, you have no chance," Gerhart said.
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 straight big game with 10 catches for 120 yards.
Ponder went 17 of 25 for 186 yards but was sacked four times.
Minnesota didn't have much of a running game without Peterson; Gerhart led the way with 44 yards on 17 carries.
Vikings rookie coach Leslie Frazier conceded it was mistake to go for a touchdown on fourth down, instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal that would've made it a one-score game.
"That's purely on me," he said. "I let my emotions get the best of me."
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