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Vikings vs. 49ers Preview: It’s Only Temporary

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No matter what happens between Minnesota and San Francisco on Sunday, both teams will probably look much different by the end of the season.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Indianapolis Colts
Jimmy Garoppolo has never lost a start. Will that change on Sunday?
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

September is a bittersweet month for Minnesotans, as Labor Day marks the unofficial end to Summer. Social media feeds transition from vacation pictures to obligatory back-to-school front porch/chalkboard photos. Lakes and cabins are traded in for rakes and cardigans. The weather is more tolerable, but we’re also reminded that Winter’s icy death grip is just around the corner. We get less daylight, but we get lots more football.

It has been an especially bittersweet September for me this year. By the end of the month we’ll be moved into our new house. It might not be our “forever” home, but it’s definitely our “we’re not moving again for a very long time” home. The new place checked all the boxes we were looking for in a house. We’re extremely excited about it.

Problem is, we haven’t sold our current place yet. We rolled the dice and did a non-contingent offer to give us a better chance at landing the new place; that part worked. We were also assured that our current house would sell in no time; that part didn’t work. Naturally, this predicament has been a large source of stress in our lives lately. The tension and suspense has been at Breaking Bad levels for the better part of a month. It’s hard to be thrilled about the move when you’re haunted by the looming specter of two mortgage payments. Each passing day without a sale feels like the world is screaming “38-7!” louder and louder in my ear.

In the long run, we’ll be just fine. (Probably.) Our house will eventually sell and we’ll get all moved into our new house that we had been waiting so long to find. But right now, it’s difficult to look past what’s right in front of us. We can’t see the big picture because we’re so consumed with the present.

The first month of the NFL season has some similarities to my current housing plight. Football fans have been so starved for football for so long that they can’t help but read way too much into the opening weeks. We have spent months poring over the draft, free agency, and Training Camp, so we assume that we have a pretty good grasp on what will happen during the upcoming season. When an opening game confirms our preconceived notions, everyone turns into Denny Green. When a team unexpectedly starts the season poorly, everyone turns into Jackie Moon.

The NFL is unique among the major sports in that there are much fewer games, giving each week a do-or-die feel. Football seasons are roughly 10% of a baseball season and 20% of a basketball or hockey season. The small sample size encourages the unpredictability and volatility that help make the league so riveting. All parties involved are fully aware of the razor-thin margins for error.

But just because there’s more at stake in each contest doesn’t necessarily make football teams more prepared when the action counts. The majority of the preseason is spent on honing the best 53-man roster possible. Starters get maybe one full game’s worth of action before being thrust into cutthroat competition. That makes the opening quarter of the season a high-stakes experiment where teams are forced to find their identities on the fly. With all the adjustments, adaptation, and injuries that happen throughout an NFL season, what we see in September rarely mirrors what we see in December.

The Vikings’ offensive line is a perfect example of this. We’re only 72 hours from kickoff and we just figured out who will be snapping the ball to Kirk Cousins. At first we thought it was going to be Danny Isidora, a fifth round pick with exactly one start and zero regular season experience at center. But now we know it will be Brett Jones, who has been a member of the team for all of ten days. This is all happening because Pat Elflein was only recently activated from the PUP list and won’t play on Sunday. Nick Easton, the presumed starter at left guard coming into Training Camp, is already out for the season. The Week 1 line of Riley Reiff, Tom Compton, Jones, Mike Remmers, and Rashod Hill is a bit suspect at best.

Behind the new-look-but-not-necessarily-by-choice offensive line is a new quarterback with a new Offensive Coordinator calling the plays for him. That new quarterback will be handing off to a running back that has all of two preseason carries to his name in the past eleven months.

All this from a presumed Super Bowl contender!

While Cousins, John DeFilippo, and Dalvin Cook are all quite talented, it may take a few games for them to mesh and fully realize their potential together. The first team offense looked absolutely lost in the preseason game against the Jaguars. The following week against Seattle was a bit more promising. With the Seahawks blitzing early and often, the Vikings quickly adjusted to pick up yards with quick passes and screens. Between DeFilippo’s creativity and Cousins’ ability to read defenses and speed through his progressions, the hope is that the learning curve won’t be as steep as it could be.

The 49ers are struggling with an offense in flux as well. Our old pal Jerick McKinnon seemed to find his perfect fit (and his perfect contract) in San Francisco only to have his season abruptly ended with an ACL tear last week. That leaves the Niners thin at running back, but not feeble. Alfred Morris is still a serviceable, if not incredibly dynamic, back. He had some nice production in the preseason and worked extensively under Kyle Shanahan when they were both in Washington.

The more intriguing option for San Francisco might be their other running back out of Georgia Southern. Matt Breida was limited to only three snaps in the preseason due to a shoulder injury, but he quietly had an impressive rookie campaign in 2017. Breida had 645 yards from scrimmage as a backup last year, including the game-clinching touchdown late in the 49ers’ surprising win over the Jaguars.

Of course, maybe that 44-33 win over Jacksonville wasn’t all that surprising. After all, they had the unbeatable Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G-sus is 7-0 as a starter in his career, including 5-0 down the stretch after being traded to San Francisco last season. The 49ers are convinced—to the tune of $71.4 million guaranteed—that Garoppolo is their quarterback of the future. Based on what he has shown in limited action thus far, their investment is hard to argue with. He’s the main reason why many experts are picking a team that started 0-9 last season to compete for a playoff spot this year. Garoppolo has shown the decision making, pocket presence, and poise of a quarterback with much more experience than he actually has.

As good as Garoppolo was last year, he wasn’t infallible. While he didn’t quite have enough attempts to qualify for Football Outsiders’ adjusted interceptions metric, his 4.3% adjusted rate would have been fifth highest in the league last year. According to Pro Football Focus, he had a 63.3 quarterback rating when under pressure. (It’s probably worth noting that Cousins was only slightly ahead of him at 66.3, but I digress.) The Vikings added some pieces to the league’s top-ranked defense in the offseason. Their tenacious front four and talented secondary could make Garoppolo’s day very unpleasant in a hurry. Joe Staley and 9th overall pick Mike McGlinchey make for excellent bookends on the San Francisco offensive line, but the interior still has some question marks. Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon won’t be able to make big plays if their quarterback doesn’t have enough time to get them the ball.

Getting the ball to the wide receivers isn’t the only option in the 49ers passing offense. In fact, it’s barely the main option. Shanahan is widely regarded as one of the most creative play callers in the league. He likes to spread the ball around in a variety of ways to put his skill players in advantageous positions. Non-wideouts accounted for 49.7% of San Francisco’s receptions in 2017. That means the Vikings need to be ready for lots of targets to George Kittle, Garrett Celek, Breida, Morris, and Kyle Juszczyk. Luckily, if last year is any indication, they should be. Minnesota was #1 in DVOA against passes to running backs and #2 in DVOA against passes to tight ends in 2017. If the Vikings can keep everything in front of them as well as they did last year, it may be hard for the 49ers offense to consistently keep the ball moving.

San Francisco’s defense should be better than the unit that has finished in the bottom quarter of the league in DVOA the past three seasons. How much better remains to be seen. Richard Sherman was the most notable addition, but he’s also ten months removed from tearing his Achilles. DeForest Buckner could cause some major problems against the Vikings’ makeshift interior line. Arik Armstead might give Rashod Hill some trouble on the outside. However, second-year linebacker Reuben Foster will miss the game due to suspension, which really hurts the Niners defense. I don’t expect the Vikings to march up and down the field all day, especially while they’re still trying to figure some things out on that side of the ball. But as long as Cousins gets a decent amount of time to throw, they should be able to have some success.

We already touched on how the Vikings and 49ers teams you see at US Bank Stadium on Sunday will probably look very different by the end of the season. That will hold true throughout the NFL. With constricted practice time, enormous roster churn, and emphasis on young potential over expensive experience, every team is forced to learn on the fly early in the year. But getting off to a fast start is still crucial. Of the 36 teams that have made the Super Bowl since 2000, all but seven have started 3-1 or better through the first four games of the season. Four of those seven teams that had worse starts were iterations of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Patriots. So unless you have the greatest coach/quarterback combo of all time, you better be figuring out how to win while you’re figuring out who you are at the beginning of the season.

With a gauntlet of very tough road games on the horizon, the Vikings can ill afford a hiccup to start the season if they hope to be a Super Bowl contender. (You know, like the one they had in the 2015 season opener against the 49ers.) Expectations are sky high in Minnesota this year, and they should be. While the offense will likely have some kinks to work out, we already have a pretty good idea of what this defense should be. They added Sheldon Richardson and Mike Hughes to a top-ranked unit that is returning ten of eleven starters. That continuity of excellence should be able to make the difference on Sunday. The Vikings need to take care of business against a Niners team that still has a few growing pains of their own to go through before they realize their potential. I think the Vikings will get 2018 started on a positive note and come away with a victory.

Just don’t bet your mortgage(s) on it. Trust me, it isn’t very fun.

Prediction

Vikings 24, 49ers 13


And now for the rest of my Week 1 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Falcons over EAGLES

Yes, this pick is slightly motivated by my disdain for how last year finished. Yes, this pick is partially because Atlanta had four chances from less than ten yards away to create a home NFC Championship Game for the Vikings. Yes, this pick is because Carson Wentz isn’t playing and Nick Foles has seemingly come crashing back down to earth this preseason. But mostly this pick is because I think Atlanta is going to be really good this year. No really, I swear.

RAVENS over Bills

The good news for Buffalo: Nathan Peterman will probably play better than his last start. The bad news for Buffalo: he’s still Nathan Peterman.

Bengals over COLTS

I think Cincinnati could be better than most people think this season. Meanwhile, I think Indianapolis is still pretty awful even with Andrew Luck back.

Steelers over BROWNS

I am thoroughly enjoying all the mudslinging going on in Pittsburgh from the offensive line toward Le’Veon Bell holding out. But not as much as I enjoyed watching Hue Jackson’s “leadership” on this season of Hard Knocks. Cleveland is too talented to be that bad again this year, but I’ll take the team led by Mike Tomlin, even without Bell.

Titans over DOLPHINS

Miami went 6-10 last year and got rid of arguably their best player on both sides of the ball this offseason. I’m not picking them very often until I figure out what the hell they’re trying to do with this team.

PATRIOTS over Texans

Houston has the chance to be one of the most exciting teams in the league this season. But I can’t pick New England to lose a Week 1 game at home—that never happens! (Just ask my 2017 Survivor Pool!)

SAINTS over Buccaneers

Speaking of Survivor Pool, this is my Week 1 pick this year. The Bucs have the toughest three-game stretch to start the season ever based on their opponents’ records the previous season, and they get to do it all without the suspended Jameis Winston! Have fun, Tampa!

Jaguars over GIANTS

The Giants seem to be the sexy upset pick of Week 1, and I get why. New York has Saquon Barkley and the newly P-A-I-D Odell Beckham Jr. Blake Bortles wasn’t exactly impressive when he visited Vikings camp a few weeks ago. But from what I saw in person in August, Jacksonville is still very impressive on both lines. I think that will be enough to grind out a win.

CHARGERS over Chiefs

I have to admit that I’m kind of on the Chargers bandwagon despite their annual tradition of losing eight key players to injury before the season even starts. Kansas City is loaded on offense, but I think Patrick Mahomes will struggle against the Chargers’ formidable pass rush.

PANTHERS over Cowboys

Norv Turner combined with Carolina’s decimated offensive line might be a recipe for disaster. But the Panthers still have all their good former Vikings healthy and Dallas might have the worst receiving corps in the league. That should be enough for Carolina to win at home.

BRONCOS over Seahawks

Denver has their best quarterback since Kyle Sloter. They also have the absolutely frightening combination of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb coming off the edge against Seattle’s “better only because it literally couldn’t get any worse” offensive line. Unless Russell Wilson pulls off a game crazier than his maternity photo with Ciara last year, the Broncos should win.

Redskins over CARDINALS

It’s the Adrian Peterson Revenge Game!

PACKERS over Bears

The NFC North got a lot more interesting with the Khalil Mack trade. But I’m still going to side with Aaron Rodgers’ 15-4 career record against Chicago for now. Rodgers owns more of Illinois than Ken Griffin. (These billionaire jokes doing anything for you? No? OK I’ll move on.)

LIONS over Jets

You know damn well I’d be picking New York here if they kept Teddy.

Rams over RAIDERS

The late Week 1 Monday Night Football games with random announcers always seem to go much differently than most people expect—just look at the aforementioned Vikings at 49ers game from 2015. But things have already gone MUCH differently than most people expected in Oakland since Jon Gruden took over. And not in a good way. THIS GUY!

Season so far: 0-0
Last year: 169-87