‘You like that?’
There were plenty of things to like about Kirk Cousins and his Minnesota Vikings’ 26-20 road win over the much-fancied New Orleans Saints on Wild Card weekend.
January 11, 2020, 9:00pm
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But, can lightning strike twice as they prepare to take on the NFC No 1, the San Francisco 49ers, in their building on Saturday night?
History will tell you it’s unlikely; the last No 6 seeds to reach the Championship round were the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers almost a decade ago in 2011, although the Packers did ultimately go on to win Super Bowl XLV, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Added to that, this is a notoriously flaky Vikings outfit in the biggest of games. With Cousins at QB, their record against teams with a winning record was a measly 6-30, until last weekend’s stunning triumph improved that ever-so-slightly.
They now face a ferocious (particularly on defense) San Francisco outfit that matches up particularly well against them, a team with just three losses on the season – all of them one-score games going right down to the wire.
The 49ers boast the second-ranked total defense in the NFL and number one against the pass. Bad news for Cousins, who is 1-4 against top-three ranked pass defences, let alone the No 1 unit, in which he is winless (0-2).
The 49ers are strong at the back-end, led by veteran cornerback Richard Sherman, named second-team All-Pro for 2019, while they are relentless up front – a defensive line that owns as many as five former first-round draft picks, including rookie sensation Nick Bosa.
And that defense is only made better by the expected returns from injury from lineman Dee Ford (hamstring) and linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral) for the divisional round clash with Minnesota.
With both playing, in Weeks 1-9, the 49ers allowed on average just 12.8 points per game, while that number has more than doubled to 26 PPG since, with one or both out injured.
The San Fran D-line has contributed to 48 sacks this season – tied for fifth in the NFL with the Vikings – and, with Ford in the team, their 36.3 per cent pressure rate ranks first in the NFL.
But, the Vikings are getting healthy at the right time too. Star running back Dalvin Cook and receiver Adam Thielen both returned to action in the Wild Card win for the Vikings, who average 28 points per game when both play and 21.9 without one or both.
Thielen had 129 on seven catches against the Saints, including his clutch grab deep in overtime that set up the game-winning score, while Cook had 94 rush yards and two TDs – the first Viking to register such a stat line in a playoff game since Adrian Peterson in 2009.
Cook is the key for Minnesota on Saturday. Not only do they play better with him in the lineup, he could well have some joy against a middling 49ers defense against the run (ranked 17th), while it also ensures Cousins is kept out of harm’s way from Bosa and the like.
Meanwhile, don’t discount the Vikings defense having success in targeting 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. As already mentioned, they tallied the same total of sacks this season, with Danielle Hunter leading the team with 16 coming off the edge.
There’s further talent on the defense too; linebacker Eric Kendricks leads the team with 115 tackles and his 12 passes defended is tied for second in the league; safety Anthony Harris leads the NFL with seven interceptions, while his partner in crime at the position, Harrison Smith, is one of just three players with three forced fumbles, three picks and 10+ passes defended on the year.
It’s a unit, talent-wise, to intimidate most teams, and one whose make-up is practically identical to when they last faced – and beat – the 49ers in Week One of last season.
Jimmy G’s stat line that day accounted to 15 of 33 passing, 261 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, for his career-low in passer rating (45.1) that still stands to date.
Garoppolo has otherwise had life pretty easy in the NFL. He is a staggering 21-5 as a starter in his career, but this is his first playoff game and regular-season records don’t always travel in the pressure-cooker environment of the playoffs.
There’s numerous recent examples, most notably last season’s 12-4 Chicago Bears, 2017’s 11-5 Los Angeles Rams, and 2016’s 13-3 Dallas Cowboys. Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Dak Prescott, all leading fine teams into the postseason, but going one-and-done with their first taste.
It’s a cautionary tale for this much-fancied 49ers team. The Vikings are hot and will fancy their chances of causing another upset.