MINNEAPOLIS — Somewhere, Michael Vick must have been shaking his head.
The Minnesota defense overwhelmed Atlanta’s Joey Harrington with six sacks and two interception returns for touchdowns, and rookie running back Adrian Peterson finished off the Falcons in a 24-3 victory by the Vikings in Sunday’s season opener.
Kevin Williams returned an interception 54 yards for a first-quarter score, and Antoine Winfield ran one back 14 yards in the fourth quarter for Minnesota. Peterson made an amazing catch out of the backfield that he turned into a 60-yard touchdown reception and — oh, by the way — finished with 103 yards rushing on 19 carries after starter Chester Taylor hurt his hip.
Harrington? He was doing all right, until imploding down the stretch. But he certainly didn’t do anything to make Atlanta forget about Vick, whose indefinite suspension and probable jail time for his role in a dogfighting ring stunned the Falcons this summer.
Harrington finished 23-for-32 for 199 yards, but he failed to lead his team to the end zone — and paid dearly for his two interceptions.
Peterson, the seventh overall draft pick out of Oklahoma, was taken to inject some life into an offense that was one of the NFL’s worst last year. He couldn’t have been any better in his debut.
With the Vikings clutching a 10-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, Peterson sneaked past DeAngelo Hall and put both hands on an off-target pass from Tarvaris Jackson. The ball popped straight up in the air, but Peterson caught it and ran right through the secondary for his first career touchdown.
Peterson didn’t just become the featured back in his first for-real NFL game. He was the lead kickoff returner, and he also saved Minnesota from a dangerous situation late in the first half by falling on a fumble at his 31-yard line after an errant shotgun snap by Matt Birk.
The Falcons were without defensive tackle Rod Coleman and another starter, free safety Chris Crocker. They forced one turnover in the third quarter, a diving interception by Hall, but moved a measly 10 yards after the possession change and summoned Michael Koenen for his fourth of five punts.
Warrick Dunn, coming off an offseason operation on his back and entering his 11th year in the league, showed he’s not slowing down. Dunn finished with 55 yards on 22 carries against the league’s best rushing defense in 2006, and he caught four balls for 26 yards.
But the Falcons sure could’ve used the energy and constant threat that Vick — for all his faults as a passer — always provided.
Atlanta led the NFL in rushing last season, but 1,039 of those yards came from Vick. Harrington, who fell to 23-44 as a starter, made some clutch throws on third down and was certainly more accurate than Jackson.
He held onto the ball too long, however, taking two sacks on the last-chance drive the Falcons had following Peterson’s big play.
With offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell ordering the plays instead of coach Brad Childress, the Vikings showed a few out-of-the-ordinary formations and calls — including reverses run by Peterson and Troy Williamson.
It was mostly the same for Minnesota’s offense, though, until the rookie took charge of the second half.
Jackson was blitzed a lot, and the Falcons stacked the line without fearing any Vikings receivers. Jackson finished 13-for-23 for 163 yards, with the one touchdown and one interception.
Matt Prater made a 45-yard field goal for Atlanta, but he missed a 44-yard try in his NFL debut.