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Case Keenum is officially a breakout star, and the Vikings are real contenders

ATLANTA - It's time to stop trying to figure it out and wondering when it will end. It's time to accept that Case Keenum is, legitimately, a standout NFL quarterback - at least for the duration of a 2017 season starved for feel-good stories on the field to distract from the turbulence occurring off it.

Likewise, it now must be taken as a given that the Minnesota Vikings are here to stay, cemented as a top NFC contender with a chance to become the first NFL team ever to play a Super Bowl in the comfortable confines of its own stadium.

Keenum and the Vikings took another step in that direction Sunday by knocking off the defending NFC champs in a mostly inelegant but very telling game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Keenum threw two touchdown passes and the Minnesota defense held the Atlanta Falcons without a touchdown as the Vikings prevailed, 14-9.

The Vikings extended their winning streak to eight games and upped their record to 10-2. Winning the NFC North is a given for them at this point. The issue now is whether they can outduel the Philadelphia Eagles for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

"I think maybe they believe now," Coach Mike Zimmer said of his players.

That tends to happen when a team is playing the way the Vikings are playing.

"I think they believed before," Zimmer said. "But, you know, the more you win and you go into somebody else's stadium and you win against a good football team, I think it just continues to add to your confidence. . . . They were happy in the locker room. But they understand that we haven't really done anything yet. We still haven't won the division. We've still got a ways to go. This playing in December here is going to be really important."

Said cornerback Xavier Rhodes: "We have nobody that has egos. Everybody is grounded on this team. We know it's not one person winning this game. It's the team winning. It's not just the defense winning the game. It's the offense, too. It's special teams. It's the whole team. It's all of us that's winning the game. That will keep us going."

Keenum has been a breakout star in an NFL season notable mostly for its controversies, from the players' protests during the national anthem to the internal owners' tussle over Commissioner Roger Goodell's contract extension, and for its injuries to standout players leaguewide such as Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and J.J. Watt.

Keenum is not quite in the MVP conversation along with fellow quarterbacks Carson Wentz of the Eagles and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. But he isn't all that far behind.

"I guess the biggest thing is that Case is making the plays he needs to make and he's not trying to overdo things," Zimmer said. "Sometimes, like in the Washington game, he tried to make some plays that he really shouldn't be trying to make. He's staying within himself. I didn't probably know that he was as good a movement guy in the pocket as he is. He's done a great job with that all year."

Will Keenum become a permanent fixture among Pro Bowl candidates? It's impossible to say. He wasn't the answer for either of his previous two organizations, the Houston Texas or the Rams (either in St. Louis or Los Angeles). Virtually no one expected him to be the answer this season for the Vikings. That was supposed to be either Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater.

But Bradford's career again has been derailed by an injury, and Bridgewater can't get back into the lineup after returning from his own major injury. Keenum simply has played too well.

"Any time you're successful, I think that breeds confidence," Keenum said. "I think guys have confidence in each other. I think the receivers have confidence in me. I have confidence in the receivers. The offensive line is trusting each other. We trust the defense to make a stop every time that they're out there. And I think the defense trusts us to go down there and win ballgames and put drives together when we need them."

He had touchdown passes Sunday to running back Jerick McKinnon and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Keenum completed his final 15 passes, going 13 for 13 in the second half, en route to a 25-for-30 passing day.

The defense took it from there, limiting the Falcons to a trio of field goals by kicker Matt Bryant. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for a modest 173 yards and wide receiver Julio Jones was limited to two catches for 24 yards.

"I can't take all the credit and say, 'It was just me,' " Rhodes said. "It wasn't. We had a good scheme. There were some plays I had help. There were some plays I was by myself. We had a good scheme on Julio and it worked."

Bryant missed a 45-yard field goal attempt with just less than five minutes to play after Falcons Coach Dan Quinn opted against a fourth-and-4 gamble from the Minnesota 27-yard line. The Falcons never got the football back, as the Vikings churned out three first downs and ran out the clock. The Falcons had their own winning streak ended at three games and their record dropped to 7-5.

There are bigger games to come for Keenum and the Vikings. But it remains a week-to-week existence, with Zimmer still being asked after Sunday's game if Keenum remains the team's starter.

"These guys are pretty smart," Zimmer said. "They know what's at stake now as we continue to move forward. We have to make sure that we continue to look toward this particular week that we play, and then when we play that, we go on to the next week. It doesn't do any good for us to look five weeks down the road or anything like that. And they've been really good about it. I can hopefully remind them at times it's what we need to do. We need to go out and win this game, and worry about the next week the next week."

Author Information: Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.

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