MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan was asked to reminisce about the last time the Falcons played in Minnesota.
"I remember they took us lightly last time," said Buchanan, a part of Atlanta's improbable overtime victory over the heavily favored Vikings in the NFC championship game on Jan. 17, 1999.
"I'll bet they won't treat us lightly this time."
No, 3-8 teams can't afford to do that.
"One of the hottest teams in the National Football League," said Minnesota coach Mike Tice. "This football team we're playing is well-coached. They play with a lot of emotion, a lot of energy and are playing very, very well right now.
"It poses a great challenge for us."
For the first time since the 1998 season, when they went 14-2 and later wound up in the Super Bowl after their big win at the Metrodome, the Falcons (7-3-1) are in the thick of the playoff race.
It's a different team, though, than the one they had four years ago.
That starts at quarterback, where Michael Vick has been busy darting around defenses in his second NFL season that has been highlighted, thus far, by his 19-for-24, 272-yard, two-touchdown passing performance last week in a 41-0 win over Carolina.
Oh, yeah, he can run, too.
"This guy came in the first day of his rookie year and ran a 4.3 (40-yard dash)," said Vikings defensive lineman Chuck Wiley, one of three former Falcons who joined Minnesota's defense this year. "He throws and throws, but if he gets in trouble, he's got his legs to back him up.
"He should probably be an MVP candidate."
Vick, Warrick Dunn and rookie T.J. Duckett have combined for 1,502 yards rushing, so there's no secret what Atlanta likes to do. Vick has only nine touchdown passes, but he's thrown only two interceptions.
Though Minnesota's young defense is ranked 29th, the Falcons' basic game plan might be to the Vikings' benefit.
They've done a decent job stopping the run, and their biggest troubles have come against teams that rely on more of a rhythm passing game and complex playbooks -- like Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe, Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson and New England's Tom Brady.
With Vick, Atlanta is a little simpler to prepare for.
"Their offense is not real complicated," Vikings defensive coordinator Willie Shaw said. "Vick's getting one or two reads and then, boom, he's taking off."
This is an important game for the Falcons, who trail the Buccaneers (9-2) by 1 1/2 games in the NFC South and play at Tampa Bay next week.
That might explain why coach Dan Reeves spent much of his talks with the media this week drenching praise on the Vikings despite their struggles.
"They are a very dangerous football team," Reeves said. "They really are playing a lot better football now than they were early in the year."
That's true. Two of their best games (a 25-7 win over Chicago on Oct. 27 and a 31-21 victory over Green Bay on Nov. 17) have come in the last five weeks. The offense, despite a league-high 32 turnovers (23 by quarterback Daunte Culpepper), is second in the league, and Michael Bennett's 908 yards rushing rank second in the NFC.
The defense, miles away from mediocrity earlier, kept the Patriots out of the end zone for the second half of last week's 24-17 loss.
And "being at home always helps," Shaw said.
Culpepper's struggles have kept Randy Moss from making much of an impact. He has only four touchdowns this year.
"I'm very surprised, but Randy probably gets more attention than anybody in this league," Culpepper said. "People are going to do what they can to try to stop him. We've just got to do a better job of other guys making plays. Everybody has to make plays, not just Randy."
Lately, more of that has been happening. Bennett had a streak of four straight 100-yard games broken against New England. D'Wayne Bates and Kelly Campbell -- an undrafted rookie from Georgia Tech -- have slowly emerged as viable receiving options, as have tight ends Byron Chamberlain and Jim Kleinsasser.
So if Minnesota can ignore its penchant for turnovers and penalties, Atlanta's defense, which has two shutouts this year, should be in for a challenge.
"They have a lot of weapons," Reeves said.
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