NFC Divisional Round Matchup:
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
Saturday, January 11, 01:35 PM PST (NBC)
The San Francisco 49ers sat at home and gained health this past week while the Minnesota Vikings advanced to the NFC Divisional Round. Jaquiski Tartt, Dee Ford, and maybe (just maybe) Kwon Alexander make their return from injury this weekend. It will be the first playoff game in Levi’s Stadium history and the stadium should be rocking. The Vikings showed last week that a rocking stadium means less than nothing to them. The Superdome, the site of their victory last week, is one of the most insane environments in the NFL. This NFC Divisional Round matchup should be an interesting matchup, at least.
How the San Francisco 49ers Win
Important Player: Dee Ford
Dee Ford, a major acquisition for the 49ers this offseason, has been sidelined this season with various lower-body injuries. Most recently, he injured his hamstring, then re-injured it against the Saints in week fourteen. This week, however, Dee Ford returns. Ford’s played only 226 snaps this season but has six sacks in the games where he’s played 30% or more of the team’s defensive snaps. The Nick Bosa-Dee Ford combo, according to ESPN’s Nick Wagoner, garnered 24 sacks on 164 snaps this year. That’s very, very good. A healthy Ford going after Kirk Cousins will go a long way toward the 49ers winning on Saturday.
Important Position Group: Running Backs
The running back group is undoubtedly the strength of the 49ers’ offense (outside of the play-caller, Kyle Shanahan). No RB room scored more touchdowns this season. Only the Panthers and the Chargers had a higher yard per touch from their running backs, and the 49ers weren’t working with names like Christian McCaffrey and Melvin Gordon. The best-known RB before the season was Tevin Coleman, but the continued production from Matt Breida and the breakout campaign from Raheem Mostert is turning this group into household names.
Important Statistic: Jimmy Garoppolo’s Yards Per Target
Without looking, which quarterback leads the league in yards per target (minimum: 300 attempts)? It’s Jimmy G. Of course, you knew that it was the important statistic for the 49ers to win. This doesn’t sit solely at Jimmy Garoppolo’s feet. George Kittle (602) and Deebo Samuel (473) both sit inside the top-seven at WR & TE yards after the catch. The 49ers built their passing game around getting players into space with short passes and letting them go to work from there. Jimmy G will need to stay on schedule and get the passes out quickly to his playmakers and let them do the work.
How the Minnesota Vikings Win
Important Player: Adam Thielen
Thielen showed up big last week against the Saints, hauling in seven-of-nine passes for 129 yards. This marks the fourth time this season he had over six targets. In those games this season, he averaged 97.75 yards and scored three touchdowns in those four games. Led by All-Pro Richard Sherman, the 49ers allowed the fewest passing yards in the league this season but struggled lately with allowing opposing wide receivers to score. Should Thielen stay healthy, and get at least seven targets, it puts the Vikings in a good position to pull a double upset of the #1 and #3 teams in what has the makings of a true Cinderella story.
Important Position Group: Defensive Line
Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter made their mark on the Vikings-Saints playoff game last weekend. Per Pro Football Focus, they notched four sacks on eight pressures between them, including meeting for a devastating sack in the first quarter on third and goal to hold the Saints to a field goal. Jimmy Garoppolo’s current bugaboo is holding onto the football for too long to wait for plays to develop, making him susceptible to sacks (three per game since week ten).
Important Statistic: Record Against Playoff Teams
Including last weekend’s NFC Wild Card game, the Vikings have played six games against playoff teams this season. They currently stand at 2-4 on the season in such matchups. Conversely, the 49ers played five games against opponents who made the playoffs this season and have a 3-2 record in those games. Only one of these records hangs like a weight around the quarterback’s neck. That’s Kirk Cousins and his continued issues with playoff opponents. He threw the monkey off his back last week, but will it jump right back on him this week? There’s only one way to find out.