Minnesota Vikings at SanFransico 49ers
Spread: 49ers -7 | Over/Under: 44.5
While it might not have been as monumental as the Minneapolis Miracle, in the Wild Card round this past Sunday, for the second time in three years, the Minnesota Vikings shocked New Orleans and the rest of the NFL world as they defeated the Saints by the score of 26-20. Following a controversial game-ending touchdown catch by Kyle Rudolph and following a jubilant Kirk Cousins revving up the Vikings’ locker room, the sixth-seeded Vikings immediately turned their attention to the number one seeded San Francisco 49ers. While the Vikings will look for back-to-back upsets this weekend, the 49ers have also been shocking people this year. In an almost unprecedented move, the 49ers have gone from having the second overall pick in the NFL draft to now being the number one seed with home-field advantage. As of this writing, Sports betting in New Jersey has the 49ers favored by a touchdown as this game sits with a 44.5 over-under. On top of playing spoiler, the Vikings will also look to lean on a history of success as they have won six of their last eight meetings against the 49ers.
Keys To The Game: Minnesota Vikings
With the 49ers allowing the second-fewest yards to running backs, the fourth-fewest yards to wide receivers, and the fewest yards to tight ends, attacking this 49ers defense might seem daunting. That being said, they have been beaten, and it might sound cliche, but one of the keys to the Vikings winning this game is all about establishing the running game. I say cliche because ultimately, the Vikings solidifying the running game early will allow Cousins the luxury of utilizing play-action pass. Of course, what will make all of this possible will be the offensive line of Vikings who need to give a herculean effort to keep the 49ers defensive line at bay. Luckily for Cousins, recent trends have shown that the Vikings offensive line has been able to keep their quarterback upright, on the road. After allowing a total of nine sacks in consecutive road games in Weeks 4 and 5, Cousins been sacked just four times in his last six road starts. One final note on the offensive side of the ball for the Vikings, it will behoove the offense to attack cornerback, Ahkello Witherspoon early and often. Despite playing well to start the season, Witherspoon has been targeted hard in each of his last two games. In their Week 17 battle against the Seahawks, Witherspoon was victimized by Russell Wilson and D.K. Metcalf to the point where Witherspoon was ultimately benched. If there is a weak leak in this 49er secondary, currently, it’s Witherspoon.
Then there is the Vikings defense who is coming off of a Wild Card performance in which they allowed just 208 passing yards to Drew Brees. While the defense will look to carry that momentum into Santa Clara, the mantra for the defense this week should be to bend and not break. While the defense is ranked in the middle of the road in most statistical categories, they are second in the NFL in allowing a touchdown inside the red-zone. That is where they will need to be able to bend and not break and the odds might be in their favor as this 49ers offense is ranked twenty-first in the NFL in red-zone offense. Then there is Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, two of the best defensive ends in applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks who need to keep Jimmy Garoppolo uncomfortable. If they are able to force the 49ers signal-caller into some bad decisions, the Vikings might be able to add to their impressive second overall ranking in offensive drives ended with a turnover.
— John Chapman (@JL_Chapman) January 9, 2020
Keys To The Game: San Francisco 49ers
One of the most discussed storylines for the 49ers headed into the divisional round has been the likely return of some of their key defensive stars. As of this writing, the 49ers are expected to have back Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander, and Jaquiski Tartt back. As reported by Brian Witt of NBC Sports, the return of Ford and Alexander could spell big trouble for Kirk Cousins. Prior to Alexander’s torn pectoral injury on Halloween, in the 108 defensive snaps that Ford, Bosa, and Alexander played together, opposing quarterbacks posted a QBR of just 3.0. Even if Cousins is able to get around the 49ers pass rush, he will need to deal with a secondary that is seventh in quarterback completion percentage as well as quarterback rating. As mentioned earlier, Witherspoon has been a liability in the 49ers secondary as of late and if that trend continues this week, the 49ers coaching will need to be quick to insert Emmanuel Mosley into the game. Speaking of the secondary, an unfortunate set of circumstances for the Vikings might work into the 49ers favor as Adam Thielen needed stitches on his ankle this week and Stefon Diggs, who is still expected to play, has been dealing with an illness all week. If either those players remain limited, that should work right into the 49ers being tied for first in fewest plays of 20 yards or more allowed.
It isn’t all about stopping Kirk Cousins, as I mentioned earlier, the Vikings will need to establish the run with Dalvin Cook early and this 49ers front-seven will need to get ahead of that. This is just as tough of a matchup for Cook as it will be for the 49ers as their defense is one of just six teams to allow seven or fewer touchdowns. While the 49ers do not necessarily need to win the time of possession to win the games, the Vikings will look to use Cook in an effort to keep Kyle Shanahan’s offense off of the field. The front-seven of the 49ers will need to stifle Cook early and keep the Vikings in third and long situations.
In regards to the offense, this will be the first career playoff game for Jimmy Garoppolo, and it will be his responsibility to keep things small and resist the urge to make tight throws into coverage. The Vikings allowing one touchdown all season to tight ends should be worrisome for George Kittle and while the popular tight will make his presence felt, the key for Garoppolo is that he should look to lean on Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders with short and intermediate passing. Couple that with Kyle Shanahan dialing up one of the leagues best rushing attacks, and that will be how the 49ers can stay afloat against a tough Vikings defense.
Fantasy Take: Start’em Sit’em
While this game is loaded with fantasy-relevant players, I believe that both defenses will keep these two offenses in check. I expect both Garoppolo and Cousins to do enough to keep their teams in the game, but I do not believe that will resonate top-tier fantasy production. As previously mentioned, the Vikings have allowed just one touchdown to tight ends this season. While that is alarming, the Vikings are eighth in receptions allowed to tight ends with 84. Case in point, Kittle will still be an option that you can utilize. His opposing tight end, Kyle Rudolph is also a player you can feel free to target as the 49ers had their fair share of issues against tight ends in the second half of the season. Outside of the tight ends, both running games will look to establish themselves so Dalvin Cook is a must-add option, and among the 49ers running backs, Raheem Mostert would be my pick to be the top fantasy producing 49ers back. In regards to wide receivers, Emmanuel Sanders should have PPR value, and as of this writing, things look murky with the Vikings wide receivers so I would wait and see how they progress towards gameday.
The 49ers will go as far as their defense will take them. What I mean by that is if the pass rush, mainly Dee Ford, can stay healthy, the pass rush will put enough pressure on Kirk Cousins to disrupt the Vikings offense. From there, as previously mentioned, if Jimmy Garoppolo can make minimal mistakes and keep things small, that should be enough for the 49ers to win this game. I ultimately think that the 49ers will check all the appropriate boxes and will wind up hosting the NFC Championship. All of that being said, this will not be an easy game for the 49ers. Currently, the Vikings are seven-point underdogs, and I do not see the 49ers covering. This Vikings offense is similar to the 49ers and performances from Cook, and Rudolph will keep the Vikings in this game till the fourth quarter. Unlike the glory days in San Francisco, it will be the defense, not the offense that will carry them through.
My Pick: 49ers 23-20