Minnesota at SAN FRANCISCO
If the Ravens’ and Titans’ offenses are a study in contrast, Minnesota and San Francisco might feel like they’re looking in mirrors preparing for the divisional round.
Saturday’s first of two six seeds visiting the cream of their respective conference, Mike Zimmer’s Vikings and Kyle Shanahan’s Niners heavily rely on zone run schemes to set up play action and often are content generating pressure with their explosive pass-rushing fronts while playing coverage behind them.
The Vikings were awfully impressive taking down the talented and well-balanced Saints in hostile territory – and it was a lot more than Kirk Cousins, who obviously exorcised his big-game demons by delivering some gutsy throws in crunch time. Dalvin Cook appeared fresh after sitting the previous two games, turning 31 touches into 130 yards and two touchdowns. Adam Thielen (seven catches for 127 yards) also was as healthy as he’s been since injuring his hamstring about midseason, and Stefon Diggs stood tall in key moments amid an otherwise quiet day.
Defensively, Minnesota enjoyed yeoman contributions from its undermanned cornerback corps against the NFL’s best receiver, Michael Thomas; terrific play from linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks; and all the pass rush it needed with Danielle Hunter heating up the edges and Everson Griffen wreaking havoc from everywhere, the pair combining for three sacks and six quarterback hits.
It’ll be tougher sledding by the Bay. George Kittle, red-hot wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders and a deep and diverse running back stable give Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo no shortage of weaponry on the NFL’s No. 2 scoring offense.
Garoppolo, like Cousins, has had a deft touch of late in crunch time, but he’s making his playoff debut, fresh off his first 16-game NFL season as the starter.
How much Vikings safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris can slow down Kittle – for our money, currently the game’s best two-way tight end – and whether Minnesota’s edge rushers can replicate their awesome performances of a week ago against pass-pro stud offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, are pivotal matchups that will help determine how Garoppolo’s first postseason action goes.
Both teams are a bit better defending the pass than the run, but the Niners should welcome back a big-time boon in Kwon Alexander, activated this week from short-term injured reserve after suffering a torn pectoral in Week 8. Rejoining the speedy Alexander with underrated Fred Warner provides an extra layer of second-level security behind perhaps the game’s best four-man front, headlined by Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Nick Bosa.
Richard Sherman returning to his All-Pro form and safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt playing at a high level certainly help.
Suffice to say, the Vikings not only need Cousins and Cook again at their best, they’ll need an O-line that’s been far better blocking the run than the pass to deliver its finest performance together. If that happens and Minnesota pulls off another stunner, it won’t have been smoke and mirrors.