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Vikings at 49ers: Five questions that will decide the game

Dalvin Cook’s production, Jimmy Garoppolo’s performance and more.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers are favored to beat the Vikings by seven in Saturday’s NFC Divisional matchup. That’s no problem for the Vikings, who were bigger underdogs a week ago in New Orleans. We all know how that turned out. That said, oddsmakers have a number of good reasons to favor the Niners, and Minnesota will have to play a near-perfect game to leave the Bay Area with a win. Here are five questions that will decide the game.

1. Can the 49ers stop Dalvin Cook?

It’s no secret that the success of Minnesota’s offense this season has hinged on how effective Cook has been. When the Vikings establish the run early, Kirk Cousins has been deadly with the play-action attack. When the Vikings can’t run it (or, in the disastrous Packers game, don’t even try to), things go downhill very fast. It isn’t like this is a secret, either. The Niners know the Vikings are gonna start the game by feeding Cook, and that early battle in the trenches could have major implications for the rest of the game.

2. Will Jimmy Garoppolo’s inexperience show in his first playoff game?

It’s a question that will always get asked with a team that makes an unexpected jump into the top tier of the league. Sure, Garoppolo has been excellent in leading his team to the NFC’s top seed. But can he do it when it really counts? He’s showed up in big games (most notably in the epic win over the Saints) but this is uncharted territory. He’s at home, with a great defense and rushing attack to help him out. All the ingredients are there. But we still need to ask the question.

3. How healthy are Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen?

It feels like eons since we’ve seen both these guys be effective in the same game. When they’re both playing at a high level, they make up maybe the best one-two wide receiver punch in the NFL. But Thielen is questionable with an ankle injury, and Diggs missed time this week with an illness. I’d be shocked if both guys aren’t out there on Saturday, but how much attention will they draw? If they can keep the San Francisco secondary occupied, it’ll open up all sorts of things for Cook and the short passing game. If they can’t, Kevin Stefanski will have a lot more questions than answers (side note: please don’t leave, Kevin. The Browns are not the place for you).

4. Can Kirk Cousins go get it again?

This feels obligatory, even though I know a lot of people will roll their eyes. Going into last week, I had little to no hope that Cousins would turn in the kind of performance he did. But now we know he can do it, and we know there’s a baseline and a gameplan for how he can do it. There’s no reason why Cousins can’t play as well or better than he did last week. The questions about his past performances in big games will always be there, and the best way to move on from them is to keep playing like he did last week. There seems to be a lot more optimism from Vikings fans this week, and that’s no doubt due to Cousins’ play a week ago. If you want it...

5. Can the Vikings neutralize George Kittle?

It’s no secret that Kittle is one of the more dominant players in the league. He’s been tearing up defenses all season, was named to the All-Pro team and is a matchup nightmare. When Kittle is on the inside, I’d expect the Vikings to be physical and try to wear him down. But Kyle Shanahan likes to line Kittle up on the outside, and when that happens it’ll be up to the Vikings cornerbacks to take care of him. That’s a tall task for anyone, but is Xavier Rhodes up for it? Or Trae Waynes? With Mackensie Alexander out again, Minnesota is gonna need everything it can get from its defensive backs. The margin for error is razor-thin.

Five Quick Thoughts

1. The missing question here, obviously, is “will the Vikings find some insane way to blow it?”

2. This warms my heart.

3. You have to wonder how Stefanski’s interview with the Browns is affecting his preparation for this game. I know he’s a professional and he’s done a great job this season, but this is the most important week of the season and he’s doing a head-coaching interview right in the middle of it. Not that he shouldn’t be doing it, just something to consider.

4. I believe in you, Dan Bailey. I think.

5. Danielle Hunter is unstoppable. One of the best parts of the week is watching a new opposing fan base discover this.