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Vikings at 49ers Divisional Playoffs Preview: Sisyphean

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For the second straight week, Minnesota is a big underdog in a tough road playoff game. Can they escape the Bay Area with a win to earn a shot at their next uphill battle?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers
George Kittle and the 49ers offense will pose a new set of problems for the Vikings on Saturday.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Vikings traveled to New Orleans to take on the 13-win New Orleans Saints. They put a great game plan together, executed it very well (for the most part), and eked out a thrilling overtime win. Their reward? Traveling to the Land of E-40 to take on the 13-win San Francisco 49ers Saturday afternoon. Just six days after thwarting a title contender in a hostile environment as 8-point underdogs, they’re facing an even more formidable title contender as 7-point underdogs. If they happen to escape Santa Clara with another victory, they’ll have to travel to face yet another formidable opponent as likely underdogs in a stadium where they already lost earlier this season. If they happen to do the unthinkable and escape that game with a win...

...actually, I can’t be completely certain about what happens after that theoretical third win, because it has never happened in my lifetime. But it sounds like a good time. I think the Vikings should check it out one of these years to see what all the fuss is about.

Anyway, I’m getting way ahead of myself here. Point is, beating the Saints was only the first step in a long, arduous journey if the Vikings hope to achieve their ultimate goal. Winning in New Orleans was great, but it wasn’t even close to the mountaintop. Another uphill battle stands in their way on Saturday, which of course is fighting for the chance to participate in yet another uphill battle. If one looks at the big picture instead of taking the clichéd “one game at a time” approach, it can all start to feel a bit Sisyphean.

If you’re a Vikings fan and that word isn’t familiar to you, it certainly should be. Sisyphus was a king in Greek mythology that believed he was more clever and conniving than Zeus himself. As punishment for trying to outsmart the gods, Zeus made Sisyphus roll a huge boulder up a steep hill for all eternity. Right before Sisyphus reached the top of the hill, the stone would roll back down the hill and he’d have to start all over again.

If that isn’t a metaphor for Vikings fandom, I don’t know what is. So how can the Vikings keep the stone from rolling back down the hill for another week and take out the mighty 49ers? It starts with a Sisyphean task for the Vikings defense.

Kittles n’ fits n’ fits n’ fits

A week after taking on the best wide receiver in the NFL, Minnesota faces the best tight end in the NFL. With all due respect to Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Mark Andrews, and the other talented tight ends in the league, George Kittle was simply in another class this year. Pro Football Focus gave Kittle the highest tight end grade since they began charting, which includes the entirety of Rob Gronkowski’s career. When you’re one-upping Gronk in his prime, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Kittle has become the most complete tight end in the NFL just three seasons into his career. He can do it all. He’s an excellent run blocker, which opens up the run game for the three-pronged attack of Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida. He’s great at selling his excellent run blocking and then sliding into the second level of the defense for easy receptions. He’s great at starting inline and then leaking back across the formation to catch passes in the opposite direction of the play action. He’s great at exploiting man-to-man mismatches when lining up in the slot. He’s great at finding holes in zone coverage and sitting in the perfect spot for Jimmy Garoppolo to find him for an easy gain.

Once Kittle gets the ball in any one of the myriad methods dialed up by Kyle Shanahan’s extremely creative offense, tackling him is like trying to bring down a refrigerator hooked up to a 426 Hemi. Just ask the Saints’ Marcus Williams, whom Kittle dragged for 20 yards down the sideline to set up the game-winning score while Williams helplessly held onto Kittle’s face mask.

If that wasn’t enough, the 49ers can simply interchange Kittle with their versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk in several of these situations just to keep you guessing even more. And if you devote too many resources to stopping Kittle and the run game, rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel can beat one-on-one coverage on the outside for big gains.

And if you slide help over to Samuel, veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders can get open underneath and move the sticks. To further complicate defending San Francisco’s offense, the Star Tribune’s Andrew Krammer broke down how well the 49ers use motion to get key players open and get take key defenders out of the play. If you aren’t completely convinced that the Niners offense has a lot of ways to beat you, Arif Hasan explains it in even more detail with several examples on The Athletic.

Slowing the motion

How can a team possibly deal with all this misdirection and cover all these options? Are the Vikings just doomed here? Not necessarily. Some of their defensive strengths match up well with the offensive strengths of the 49ers. As Ted Nguyen explained in incredible detail in his article on Wednesday, the Minnesota defense can counteract San Francisco’s scheme in a couple different ways. The Vikings can put an extra safety and/or linebacker at the line of scrimmage to discourage double teams against Linval Joseph and the rest of the defensive line in the run game. They can also continue to mix up their coverages and pre-snap looks—something Zimmer’s defenses have always excelled at—to ensure that the 49ers aren’t the only side disguising what they’re about to do.

While the Vikings have certainly had their struggles at cornerback this season, they’re very strong at the positions that traditionally cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game. Eric Kendricks has been incredible in pass coverage this season and Eric Wilson can hold his own in that department as well. (Which means the 49ers will probably try to scheme mismatches on Anthony Barr, who doesn’t have the best history with allowing big plays in the passing game.) When it comes to safety help over the top, you couldn’t ask for a more dynamic duo than Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris.

With an offense that tries to get opposing defenses leaning the wrong way so often, tackling will be paramount on Saturday. Luckily, that’s another strength for the Vikings. They lead the league in fewest missed tackles and have the highest PFF team tackling grade. You can’t take away all the advanced features of the 49ers offense if you can’t execute your own basic tasks.

The permutations of how Shanahan’s offense and Zimmer’s defense will attack each other are limitless. It’s a chess match of Kasparov vs. Deep Blue proportions. Thinking about all the different ways these coaching staffs can battle is the stuff tape grinders and All-22 addicts dream of, but the outcome might be decided by a single factor: which pass rush has more success.

Pressure points

New Orleans had one of the best pass blocking lines in the league this season. All-Pro right tackle Ryan Ramczyk didn’t allow a single sack in over 650 pass blocking snaps during the regular season; he allowed two to Danielle Hunter in the Wild Card game. The 49ers offensive line isn’t porous by any means, but they were more toward league average by most metrics. When the 49ers do allow pressure, it can significantly impact how Garoppolo performs. Jimmy G had a few rocky games at the beginning of his first full season as a starter, but acquitted himself well down the stretch against lots of playoff-caliber competition. He has stepped up with important throws in key moments and has four fourth quarter comebacks to his credit this season.

But when Garoppolo is under pressure, he can get into trouble. As Kyle Posey of Niners Nation touched on in our Q&A Thursday, the Niners signal caller tends to hold onto the ball too long at times, which can lead to some major mistakes. Garoppolo had ten fumbles (five lost) and 13 interceptions this season. When he wasn’t under pressure, he had a PFF grade of 90.2. That grade sank to 45.6 when pressured. Second-year right tackle Mike McGlinchey is going to have a tall task against Hunter. The 49ers will probably have to provide help for him, which may affect the kinds of routes they can run in the passing game. Left tackle Joe Staley has seen it all over his 13-year career, but he’s getting a bit long in the tooth and missed nine games this season. Everson Griffen had five pressures and a sack against Staley in their Week 1 matchup in 2018. If the Vikings can get pressure at pivotal moments like they did last week in New Orleans, they could be able to stymie another high-powered NFC offense.

However, the favorable pass rushing matchups go both ways on Saturday. The 49ers defense was ridiculously good over the first half of the season because their pass rush was an absolute terror while rarely blitzing. You think he Vikings had a nice October? The Niners had a four-week stretch where they allowed 5.8 points and 180.3 total yards per game while racking up nine turnovers, 73 total pressures, and 18 sacks. The San Francisco defense averaged 22.74 expected points added per game over that stretch; the Vikings didn’t have a single game where the defense had that many expected points added this year.

Injuries to key players combined with a really tough slate to finish the season caused the 49ers defense to regress a bit, but the final numbers are still outstanding. San Francisco finished second in total defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA. They were the second ranked overall defense by PFF. They were second in total defense, first in yards per play allowed, first in passing yards and net yards per attempt allowed, second in yards per drive allowed, and third in expected defensive points added. And now they’re as healthy as they have been since the beginning of the season. Dee Ford is listed as questionable, but it sounds like he should return to the lineup along with linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt. With their defense near full strength, the Vikings will have to account for a lot more than second overall pick Nick Bosa, who finished his rookie year sixth in total pressures. The Vikings have done a decent job keeping top-caliber edge rushers relatively quiet for much of the season; they did well enough against Cameron Jordan last week and kept Nick’s older brother Joey Bosa in check when they visited the Chargers last month. Of course, that hasn’t been the case with interior pass rushers.

That’s why the return of Ford is so important for the 49ers; it allows Arik Armstead (who led the team with ten sacks) to move inside more often with DeForest Buckner. Of all the dangerous players on the 49ers defense, Buckner might be the most important defender to stop for the Vikings. He has 55 total pressures, which ties him for 7th in the league among interior linemen. That’s just behind Kenny Clark and Chris Jones nine more than Grady Jarrett. All three of those players have already given the interior of the Vikings line fits this season, especially Garrett Bradbury and Pat Elflein. Like Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins’ PFF grade plummets when under fire: a grade 50.4 with pressure compared to a sterling 94.9 mark without it. If Buckner is causing trouble, the Vikings are in trouble.

If the pass protection doesn’t get slaughtered, there might be opportunities for chunk plays in the passing game. The 49ers like to run a lot of Cover 3, and the Vikings have shown that they are capable of beating it with play action and bootlegs out of two tight end sets. Matt Bowen of NFL Matchup shows how it can be effective in this breakdown:

But the Niners aren’t the best pass defense in the league just because of their line; they have some studs on the back end as well. It’s fitting that Santa Clara is only a couple hours away from Napa Valley, because Richard Sherman is aging like a fine wine. No cornerback allowed fewer yards per coverage snap this season. Jimmie Ward is San Francisco’s version of Harris—a relatively unheralded safety that keeps quietly showing up in the right place. K’Waun Williams is a good slot corner that can take on Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen when they line up inside to avoid Sherman. Having Kwon Alexander back with Fred Warner can only help the 49ers linebacking corps.

Meet in the middle

If the Vikings are going to win this game, they have to win the middle of the field on both ends. While Samuel and Sanders could certainly have a big catch or two on Saturday, their biggest matchup problem will be Kittle. If the Vikings can limit Kittle to mortal numbers--something like the seven catches for 70 yards that Michael Thomas had on Sunday--then they have a chance. But if he’s running wild and the Minnesota can’t slow down San Francisco’s three-pronged running attack, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Winning the middle of the field might be even more important on offense. They must make sure their aforementioned interior pass blocking is good enough to allow the play action and bootlegs that have been so successful for the offense this season. If they’re constantly getting blown up in the middle, it throws off Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, and the rest run game. With Sherman making things tough on the outside and Williams in the slot, it might take a few big catches from Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. to consistently move the chains.

All of the play calling, game planning, and matchups within matchups between these two teams and staffs may ultimately boil down to two very basic statistics: converting on third downs and red zone opportunities. The 49ers were very good on both sides of the ball when it comes to third downs this season; they ranked fifth on offense and second on defense in conversion rate. The Vikings ranked ninth and 19th respectively. But the Saints were also top ten in both categories heading into last week. Minnesota went 10 for 18 while New Orleans converted only four of eleven opportunities. The advantage flips to the Vikings when looking at the red zone numbers. San Francisco scored touchdowns on 53.4% of their red zone trips while allowing scores on 60% of opponent visits. Minnesota scored touchdowns 60.7% of the time while ranking second by only allowing a 43.8% red zone touchdown rate. Like most highly competitive games, this one will likely come down to which team can make the most of their opportunities.

Another upset, or order restored?

The 49ers are an excellent team; they didn’t get the top seed in one of the most competitive conferences in recent memory by happenstance. They don’t have any major weaknesses. They have an extra week of rest. They’re extremely healthy. San Francisco’s front four could wreak havoc and instantly reboot all of the negative Cousins narratives after they took a one-week hiatus. Sherman could give Diggs figurative and literal fits, especially if Thielen’s ankle injury from Wednesday’s practice limits him at all. Shanahan’s crafty play calling could leave the Minnesota defense chasing air while Kittle, Samuel, and the running backs roam free with acres of space. The Vikings’ Cinderella story could turn back into a pumpkin at a moment’s notice.

But this is still the first career playoff game for Garoppolo. It’s the first playoff game at Levi’s Stadium, a venue and atmosphere that doesn’t exactly rival the intensity that the Vikings already faced last week in New Orleans. A lot of this is new to a lot of key players on the 49ers. The Niners are rested, but they’re about to face a very hungry team that has been through this before. The Vikings learned their lesson two years ago: put the highs of last week behind you, because if you don’t, there will be an equal low waiting for you.

I’m probably picking with my heart over my head here, but I truly believe that the Vikings can escape Santa Clara with another hard-fought victory. I think they can match a lot of the 49ers’ strengths with strengths of their own. On offense, they must be smart with the football and varied enough to prevent San Francisco’s frightening pass rush from detonating everything in the backfield. On defense, they need to be fundamentally sound and opportunistic. Blown coverages and poor tackling will be a death knell for their upset hopes. They’re going to have to play some of their best football of the season to pull off the upset, but they should have the players and game plan to give themselves a chance.

Besides, the Vikings already have the most playoff losses in NFL history. There’s no need to run up the score on the rest of the league! Might as well beat the 49ers on the road to complete that 1987 Greatest Hits Tour and then see if they can rewrite history next week. Our hopes are certainly up after the big win over the Saints, but not enough people really think that the Vikings can go into San Francisco and do it again six days later. If they are truly going to twist the knife in true Minnesota fashion, wouldn’t they need to win at least one more game first? I sure hope we get to find out.

Let’s keep rolling that boulder up the hill.

Prediction

Vikings 21, 49ers 20


And now for the rest of my Divisional Round picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

RAVENS over Titans

Tennessee did exactly what they needed to do against the Patriots last week and eked out a victory. They probably need to score a lot more points to keep up with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens this week, and I don’t think Derrick Henry will be enough this time.

CHIEFS over Texans

The Texans beat the Chiefs back in Week 7, but that was in Houston and it was before Kansas City started to figure things out on defense. Houston’s game plan is hard to discern outside of saying “hey Deshaun Watson, go do your thing.” That won’t fly against Patrick Mahomes and the well-rested Chiefs on the road.

Seahawks over PACKERS

If the Vikings actually pull off their upset, a part of me wants a rematch at Lambeau with a Super Bowl berth on the line. Michael Rand has already done a bit of daydreaming about it. It would instantly create the most important Vikings game of my lifetime on several levels. But just in case the Vikings don’t pull off their second straight road upset on Saturday, the last thing in the world that Vikings fans need is the Packers advancing the following day. So I’m going heart over head with both NFC games this weekend. I’ll take Seattle to pull more playoff magic out of their rectums against Green Bay in the “our records are way better than any advanced metric says we should be” bowl.

Last week: 2-2
Playoffs so far: 2-2
Regular season: 162-93-1