Top-seeded 49ers look to fend off the upset-minded Vikings at home on Saturday
The No. 1 seed San Francisco 49ers will host the No. 6 seed Minnesota Vikings to kick off NFL playoff action on Saturday in the NFC Divisional Round. It’s loser-go-home football at this point with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line.
Following a snake-bitten 2018 campaign that saw San Francisco win just four games, the 2019 regular season concluded in storybook fashion for the 13-3 Niners. A road victory over division rival Seattle in the season finale provided them with their first NFC West title since 2012. More importantly, the 49ers clinched the top playoff spot in the NFC — earning a first-round bye and the privilege of hosting their first-ever postseason game inside Levi's Stadium. Fresh off that bye, Kyle Shanahan's Niners look to extend their dominant season and advance to the NFC Championship Game with a win over the Vikings on Saturday.
The No. 3 seed Saints had every intention of riding back to the conference title game, beginning with a victory against Minnesota. But Mike Zimmer's Vikings had other plans, as the No. 6 seed stunned the Saints on their home field in a 26-20 overtime thriller in the NFC Wild Card Round last Sunday. It marked Minnesota’s first playoff road win in 15 years, providing a big boost of momentum in the process. But will that be enough for the upset-minded Vikings to steal another playoff victory on the road — this time coming off a short week against the top-seeded Niners? It’s a tall order, but the Vikings can prove the naysayers wrong once again.
Saturday's matchup will mark the 48th meeting all-time between the Vikings and 49ers. The series is deadlocked at 23-23-1, although San Francisco holds a 4-1 edge in postseason games.
NFC Divisional Playoff: Minnesota at San Francisco
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 11 at 4:35 p.m. ET
Spread: 49ers -7
Three Things to Watch
1. The battle in the trenches
There are plenty of intriguing matchups worth paying close attention to in Saturday’s playoff showdown, but none are more compelling than the matchup between the respective offensive and defensive lines for both teams. Minnesota’s offensive line fared reasonably well in keeping a clean pocket for Kirk Cousins during the regular season, allowing just 28 sacks (7th fewest in the NFL) and 68 QB hits (5th fewest in the NFL). However, that could prove to be a tall task on Saturday.
The 49ers pass rush wasn’t quite as dominant down the stretch as it was earlier in the season. But with Dee Ford expected to return from injury to once again join forces with the likes of Nick Bosa (9 sacks), Arik Armstead (10 sacks) and DeForest Buckner (7.5 sacks), this talented group of pass rushers could collectively return to the elite form that wreaked havoc on opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks during the first half of the season. Fresh off their first open date since Week 4, it’s hard not to like their chances to do just that.
A San Francisco offensive line that gave up 36 sacks during the regular season faces an equally daunting challenge in keeping the heat off Jimmy Garoppolo on Saturday. Not only did the Vikings rack up the same number of sacks as the 49ers during the regular season (48), the Minnesota pass rush can be just as dominant when it's hitting on all cylinders. Just ask a top-5 Saints offensive line, which struggled mightily to contain the Vikings pass rush on its way to giving up three sacks and seven quarterback hits in last week’s losing effort. Minnesota's pressure also forced Drew Brees into two costly turnovers, including a pivotal sack-strip by Danielle Hunter late in the fourth quarter.
Hunter, who has 16 sacks on the season (including 1.5 last week against the Saints), will once again lead the charge against the Niners on Saturday, complemented nicely by fellow pass rushers Everson Griffen (9.5 sacks) and Ifeadi Odenigbo (7 sacks). Hunter will be paired against second-year right tackle Mike McGlinchey, while Griffen and Odenigbo will try to impose their will against 13-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley at left tackle. It should make for a great show in the trenches.
2. The quarterbacks
Despite a successful eight-year career in the NFL, depending on who you ask, the one thing missing on Kirk Cousins resume’ was a playoff win. He finally got it, and he looked good in the process against what was thought to be a superior Saints team on the road. The question is: Can he do it again?
The circumstances are eerily similar to last week. Cousins will once again be on the road, facing what looks to be superior opposition. In addition to trying to remain upright in the face of the aforementioned San Francisco pass rush, Cousins will be matched against the 49ers top-ranked pass defense, which has given up just 169.2 passing yards per game. Further complicating matters, the San Francisco defense could be at full strength for the first time in several weeks if star linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt are given the green light to return, which appears likely.
The good news is that Cousins has more than enough weapons to overcome such a matchup if he is in top form. Wide receiver Adam Thielen put together a huge 7-catch, 129-yard performance last week and also set up the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, Cousin's favorite red-zone target, ultimately scored that game-winning touchdown. And while big-play wide receiver Stefon Diggs was relatively quiet last week, it's unlikely that he will be silenced two weeks in a row. Cousins can also count on running back Dalvin Cook and tight end Irv Smith Jr. in the passing game. The only concern is the health of both Thielen and Diggs. Thielen is listed as questionable after receiving stitches for an ankle injury suffered in Wednesday's practice. At this point, the expectation is that he will play but no one, including Thielen, is making any guarantees. Diggs missed practices on Tuesday and Wednesday because of the flu was not listed on the final injury report so he should be good to go for Saturday.
Despite sporting two Super Bowl rings from his time with the Patriots, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be making his first-ever playoff start on Saturday. And like Kirk Cousins, Garoppolo’s challenge will be significant against a star-studded Vikings defense that managed to temper Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints attack just last week. In addition to Minnesota’s stellar pass rush, the Vikings feature a pair of ball-hawking safeties in Anthony Harris (NFL-best 7 interceptions this season) and Harrison Smith to go along with an All-Pro linebacker in Eric Kendricks that excels in pass coverage.
Fortunately for Garoppolo, the Minnesota pass defense also has its weaknesses. The most glaring of which are at cornerback, where Xavier Rhodes has struggled to regain his All-Pro form this season, and former first-round pick Trae Waynes has yet to really live up to his potential. And with injuries to Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes, the Minnesota secondary also finds itself a bit short-handed heading into Saturday. That bodes well for Garoppolo and a solid Niners supporting cast. Dynamic rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel has emerged as a reliable go-to target for Garoppolo, along with veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders. But as per usual, All-Pro tight end George Kittle will be the key to success for the 49er passing attack on Saturday
3. The running game looms large
While the respective quarterbacks for each of these teams will garner most of the attention heading into Saturday’s NFC divisional tilt, it will likely be the team that puts together the best rushing attack that steals the show. A successful ground game is of particular importance for the Vikings, who will need to lean heavily on running back Dalvin Cook.
The third-year back earned Pro Bowl honors, rushing for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns despite missing the final two games of the regular season with a shoulder injury. The good news is that Cook appeared fresh in his return to action in last week’s playoff win against the Saints, totaling 130 yards-from-scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns. He will look to parlay that success in a favorable matchup against a San Francisco run defense that ranked 17th in the league during the regular season, giving up 113 rushing yards per game.
San Francisco will rely on its three-headed monster to carry the load against a Minnesota run defense that ranked 13th in the NFL this season, allowing 108 yards per contest. The potent trio consisting of Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert combined for 1,939 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground during the regular season, giving the Niners the second-best rushing attack in the NFL — averaging 144 yards per game.
You can probably expect Mostert, who has emerged as the star of the Niners run game in recent weeks, to do most of the heavy lifting against the Vikings on Saturday. Mostert is averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per carry and has scored at least one touchdown in each of the 49ers last six games.
This should make for a great matchup between two teams that both feature standout defenses, potent run games, and more than capable passing attacks. A supremely confident Minnesota team will look for momentum to be the great equalizer following last week’s upset of New Orleans. But will it be enough to pull off another colossal playoff upset on the road?
It should help keep things close, along with the possibility of Jimmy Garoppolo coming out of the gate a bit shaky in his first career playoff start. However, coming off a short week to face a well-rested San Francisco squad on their home field is simply too big of a hurdle to overcome. Garoppolo eventually rises to the occasion to help the 49ers survive and advance to the NFC title game with their first playoff victory in six years.
Prediction: 49ers 24, Vikings 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.