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|AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid|
|Minnesota's Bernard Berrian was one of several Vikings who coughed up the ball in a 24-17 loss to the Falcons.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
MINNEAPOLIS -- Can I get a little help here? I'm looking for a seven-letter word for "choke."
That way, we'd have one letter for every fumble Minnesota coughed up in the biggest game of its season -- an embarrassing display that called into question whether this is truly a playoff-caliber team. The Vikings still remain in control of the NFC North after a 24-17 loss to Atlanta, but let's be clear: Their aspirations of a postseason run will be moot if they repeat this performance any time soon.
"That's unheard of," receiver Bobby Wade said. "I don't know a team in history that can win a game if you [fumble] seven times. I don't know how many times we lost it? Four? You're not going to win many games like that."
The Vikings could have clinched the division title Sunday at their home stadium. Instead, you had Bernard Berrian fumbling a punt return in the first quarter. You had a ball sailing over the shoulder of quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in a shotgun formation.
You had Jackson losing the ball on a sack and having it bounce 30 yards behind him. Then there was tailback Adrian Peterson dropping the ball after bumping into left tackle Bryant McKinnie. You even had Peterson and Jackson botching a simple handoff.
"A couple of them were mistakes that maybe a professional team shouldn't make," safety Darren Sharper said. "Whenever you have exchanges, things like that, things that we do all day during practice, things like that should be second nature. Those are big mistakes."
Sharper, of course, freely admitted the bumbling extended to the Vikings' defense, which missed an opportunity to prevent the eventual winning score. Sharper overran a loose ball in the end zone late in the third quarter, trying to make a game-changing play when falling on the ball would have saved a score.
Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin had the next chance, but he slid past the ball before Atlanta guard Justin Blalock fell on it to give the Falcons a 24-7 lead.
All told, the Vikings matched an NFL season-high with four lost fumbles -- including three in Falcons territory. (San Francisco and Arizona have done it once apiece this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.)
How does a veteran team that has won four consecutive games, and five of it past six, produce such a self-inflicted clunker? Surely no one overlooked the Falcons, who entered the game with an identical 9-5 record. But Sharper admitted the Vikings didn't match Atlanta's "intensity," and Griffin described their play as "lackadaisical."
"I thought we were focused during the week of practice," Griffin said. "But at the same time, we kind of laid down there a little bit."
That's not a good sign for a team that could win the division as early as Monday night, should Green Bay defeat the favored Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Even if the Bears win, the Vikings can clinch the title with a victory next Sunday at home against the New York Giants -- or with a Chicago loss at Houston the same day.
Given those relatively good odds, most players went out of their way Sunday to emphasize calm.
"It's not over," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "We will continue to work hard. We understand where we are. One more win and we get in. We can't worry about [the Chicago game]. We have to go out there and handle our own business."
Winfield said he'll be tuned in Monday night but said a Bears loss "isn't the way we want to get in."
I like Winfield's thinking along with that of Sharper, who said the Vikings need to beat the Giants next Sunday regardless of what happens Monday night in Chicago.
Entering the playoffs on a two-game losing streak? Not a good combination.
"This game was a step back for us," Sharper said. "But we know if we come back with a win next week against a good team, that'll get us back to where we were."
A few other points worth noting: