Perhaps the most surprising result of Wild-Card Weekend was the Minnesota Vikings walking out of the Superdome with a win over the No. 3 seed New Orleans Saints. This Saturday, we’ll find out if they can go to San Francisco and do it again, this time against the No. 1 seed 49ers.
In the interest of getting on with the show, let’s break things down.
How to watch
Time: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Location: Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Missouri)
TV: NBC | Stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Line: 49ers -7
When the Vikings have the ball
The Vikings managed to escape New Orleans with a win last weekend, but they’ll have to do better offensively if they want to advance past San Francisco. The final numbers — 362 total yards, 26 points — look pretty good, but when you consider that before the overtime period, Dalvin Cook had 24 carries for just 82 yards (3.4 per carry) and Kirk Cousins was only 15 of 26 (57.7 percent) for 179 yards (6.9 per attempt) and an interception, they don’t look quite as rosy.
A better performance will presumably be hard to come by against what was one of the NFL‘s best regular-season defenses, though. The 49ers ended the year allowing the fewest yards per play in the NFL. They forced a turnover on the league’s sixth-largest percentage of opponent possessions and allowed a score on the second-smallest percentage. They excelled on third downs (33.3 percent conversion rate, third-best in the league), and though their red-zone conversion rate of 60 percent wasn’t great, they also allowed only 40 trips to the red zone overall, a total that ranked second-best in the NFL behind only the Patriots. As a result, they finished the season with the NFL’s second-best defense by DVOA, ranking 11th against the run and second against the pass.
Looking at the overall numbers, though, paints a little bit of an inaccurate picture of the San Francisco defense. In the team’s first seven games, the 49ers allowed an average of 11.0 points per game, allowing 20 or more only once. They yielded 224.4 yards and 12.4 first downs per game and forced 2.3 turnovers per game. In the final nine games of the year, San Francisco allowed an average of 25.9 points per game, allowing 20 or more in eight of those nine contests. They also allowed 326.4 yards and 22.0 first downs per game, while forcing just 1.6 turnovers per game. Obviously, the difference between those two subsets of the season was stark.
So, which of those defenses is the “real” Niners? Well, it probably depends who’s on the field. San Francisco has been dealing with injury issues over the second half of the season, particularly along the defensive front. They should be healthier now than they have been in weeks, but there’s still question about whether or not star edge rusher Dee Ford will be able to take the field. He’s one of the best pressure players on the roster, and his presence or absence will have a dramatic effect on the matchup on this side of the ball. Even without Ford, though, the Vikings’ offensive line still has a lot to deal with. There’s Nick Bosa, of course, but also DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, and more. The 49ers ranked second in the NFL in pressure rate this season, and Cousins, like every other quarterback in the NFL, struggles a bit under pressure.
Even if the Vikings manage to keep Cousins well-protected, San Francisco will still be tough to throw on. The Richard Sherman-led secondary was arguably the NFL’s single most-improved unit this season, with players like Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, and K’Waun Williams taking big steps forward. (Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley were a bit up and down.) The Niners play sides with their corners, which means that whichever of the Vikings’ receivers lines up to the right side of the formation will see Sherman, whoever’s on the left will see Witherspoon, and whoever is in the slot will see Williams. Minnesota tries to move its receivers around a bit, so Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen should each have opportunities against all three of San Francisco’s corners.
Minnesota, though, is one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, and it seems likely that the Vikings will try to use Cook and/or Alexander Mattison to try to control the game to some degree or another. The 49ers run defense was a step behind its pass defense all year, and there were a few games during the season where opponents were able to do exactly that against them. The likelihood of the Vikings’ offensive line decisively winning the matchup against the San Francisco defensive front seems pretty unlikely, though, so they may have to throw the ball more than they typically desire, and more than is typically advisable against the Niners.
When the 49ers have the ball
For much of this season, the Vikings’ defense was not quite as dominant as it had been for the past few years. They recaptured the magic last week against the Saints, shutting down an offense that was not only one of the NFL’s best in the league during the regular season, but had been on a roll down the stretch.
It’s likely that not many people think of the 49ers’ offense as being on the same level as that of the Saints due to their relative lack of star power, but that’s a mistake. San Francisco ranked fourth in yards and second in points during the regular season, as well as seventh in offensive DVOA. These guys can move the ball, and they can do it both through the air and on the ground. Kyle Shanahan is one of the NFL’s best play-callers, and he routinely puts his guys in position to succeed by scheming them open and creating angles that shouldn’t exist.
San Francisco is able to come at a defense with waves of guys who just know how to make plays with the ball in their hands. Every skill position player on the offense is fast. And that’s purposeful. They want to test the edges of the defense on an every-snap basis, and use the threat of getting outside to get the ball right up the middle of the field. They’ll use counters and misdirection and jet sweeps and pre-snap motion, sometimes all on the same play. They’ll line up in one formation, then shift to another, then send a guy in motion, then send another into motion at the snap, then fake a hand-off or two, fake a screen, and throw the ball over the middle to George Kittle, who is somehow wide open and rumbling through your secondary.
The matchup here likely comes down to which of the groups in the trenches can win the day. The 49ers ranked eighth in the league in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards this season, indicating that they got consistently strong blocking up front. They were a bit less successful in power situations (third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go), ranking 14th with a 67 percent conversion rate. The Vikings’ run defense was basically the inverse of that, ranking 25th in Adjusted Line Yards but first in power situations, allowing conversions only 49 percent of them time. The Vikes seem pretty likely to drop an eighth man into the box on occasion and dare the 49ers to make Jimmy Garoppolo beat them over the top, preferring to concentrate on Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida.
When we get to the outside, the speed of the San Francisco offense provides an advantage. Minnesota is down several top cornerbacks now, with only Xavier Rhodes still “healthy” among the starters, and even he suffered a shoulder injury that clearly bothered him throughout last week’s game. Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders should thus have plus matchups all game. The 49ers are capable of taking advantage of those matchups, but they also prefer to run their passing game through Kittle over the middle, with a dash of their wide variety of screens. The Vikings were one of the NFL’s best teams at defending tight ends this season, ranking first in DVOA on throws to the position, as well as sixth on short throws and second on throws over the middle.
The 49ers should be ready for that, and I’d expect Shanahan to test the perimeter of the defense early in the game, just to loosen things up a bit. That might be with screens, it might be with stretch or outside zone runs, or it might be with play-action boot concepts. All of that is in play. All of that also puts pressure on the Vikings’ edge defenders to play a major role in this game. Whereas last week it was the middle of the defensive front that needed to consistently win in order to knock Drew Brees off his spots, this week it’s the edge rushers who need to box Garoppolo into the pocket and keep the backs from turning the corner. If the Vikings can manage to do that, they’ll make a game of this.
Prediction: 49ers 24, Vikings 20