49ers vs. Vikings: Who has edge at each position in NFC playoff game?
Who has the edge?
49ers fans let out a sigh of relief when Kirk Cousins hit Kyle Rudolph for a touchdown to defeat the New Orleans Saints and send the Minnesota Vikings to Levi's Stadium.
Not only are the Saints no longer a roadblock to the Super Bowl, but the 49ers also got to miss the Seattle Seahawks for at least one more week.
A matchup with Mike Zimmer's Vikings won't be a walkover, though.
Much like the 49ers, the Vikings are a run-heavy team with a fearsome front seven on the defensive side of the ball. It's a game that likely will be decided by which team can establish the line of scrimmage, and which team can force the opposing quarterback to make a game-changing mistake.
So, who has the edge?
Kirk Cousins: The 31-year-old finally won a big game last week when he and the Vikings went into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and knocked off the Saints. Now, he faces the next biggest game of his career.
Long believed to be a quarterback who was just good enough to deliver an L in a must-win game, Cousins threw for 242 yards and one touchdown in New Orleans. And, most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. In fact, Cousins only threw six interceptions all season. Kevin Stefanski's offensive system has allowed Cousins to have the best season of his career, posting a 107.4 passer rating while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. Cousins also led the league with 13 touchdowns off play-action passes. Oh, and no one expects him to go into Levi's and win.
Jimmy Garoppolo: After sitting on the bench for two Super Bowl runs with the New England Patriots, Garoppolo finally gets his chance to shine in the postseason. The 49ers signal-caller has made all the plays necessary this season, directing an offense that has become more potent through the air as the season has gone on. Garoppolo has turned the ball over more than you'd like, but he's also shown a knack for bouncing back to make big plays after what could be soul-crushing mistakes.
That playoff experience in New England probably won't hurt, but will Garoppolo feels the nerves in his first playoff start? He doesn't seem like the type.
Vikings: We can make this one quick: Dalvin Cook is one of the best running backs in the NFL when healthy. The Florida State product finished in the top 10 in the NFL in yards, touchdowns, DVOA (defensive-adjusted value over average) and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. The Vikings will give the ball to Cook early and often Saturday, hoping to both control the tempo of the game and set up the play-action passing game, where Cousins can be lethal.
49ers: Cook is the best running back in the game, but it's not like the 49ers are trotting out some guys fresh off the street. Raheem Mostert burst onto the scene this year and has become the 49ers' running back of choice. While he might not have the yards or touchdowns that Cook does, Mostert ranks first in DVOA and seventh in DYAR. Also, no team gave up more yards rushing when facing 21 personnel than the Vikings, who surrendered 6.9 yards per carry and a 72 percent success rate.
The 49ers run from 21 personnel on 31 percent of their runs, which is suboptimal for the Vikings.
Advantage: Vikings (barely)
Vikings: In terms of top-tier talent, the Vikings have the edge with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Both receivers have elite talent, giving the Cousins the ability to take the top off the defense and make big plays down the field off play action.
Thielen was cleated in practice this week and had to receive stitches on his ankle. He officially is questionable for the game but is expected to play. Diggs will be a full go, but hasn't fared well in his career against 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. After those two, though, the Vikings have a hodgepodge of guys most people have never heard of. If the 49ers can keep the stars in check, the Vikings' passing game could wilt.
49ers: The 49ers' passing game was underwhelming midway through the season. It was mainly George Kittle or bust. But the acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders and the emergence of rookie Deebo Samuel has given the 49ers two wide receivers with the ability to make game-changing plays. Kendrick Bourne has been serviceable as a No. 3 receiver. The Vikings' cornerbacks are their weakness, so expect Samuel and Sanders to get targets early and often as the 49ers look to come out and hit the Vikings in the mouth early.
Vikings: Kyle Rudolph has once again emerged as a dangerous weapon for the Vikings' passing attack. He has the trust of Cousins, especially in the red zone, and should see a lot of intermediate targets as the 49ers look to keep the Vikings from hitting on the big play down the field.
49ers: Yes, Rudolph is a talented tight end, but George Kittle is the best tight end in football. The heir apparent to Rob Gronkowski, Kittle almost is impossible to tackle and is one of the best blockers in the NFL. This one isn't even close.
Vikings: What was thought to be a weakness entering the season actually has been a strength for the Vikings. Their offensive line ranks seventh in adjusted line yards, fifth in stuffed rate, 12th in power success and 14th in pass protection rank. They've only given up 28 sacks this season, which is the sixth-fewest in the NFL.
49ers: The 49ers' O-line has been everchanging all season due to injuries, but still has gotten the job done. They rank eighth in adjusted line yards, but are 20th in stuffed rate, 14th in power success and are 15th in pass protection, giving up 36 sacks this season. Both units will have their hands full going up against stout D-lines. Keeping the QB upright just might determine the outcome of the game.
Vikings: Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen made life hell on Drew Brees a week ago. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer moved them inside, a move the Saints didn't have a counter to, and the duo ate all day long. If Hunter and Griffen have their way Saturday, it might be one and done for the 49ers.
49ers: The 49ers' front was one of the most ferocious in all of football through 10 weeks. The injury to Dee Ford's hamstring knocked them down a peg as it caused Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead to play more snaps and caused them to wear down. Ford will be a game-time decision Saturday. If he can play just 25 snaps, that could give the 49ers a huge boost in their quest to make life uncomfortable for Kirk Cousins.
Vikings: Eric Kendricks has been phenomenal this season, especially in coverage. He earned All-Pro honors. This season, Kendricks has a 20 percent ball-hawk rate (percentage of targets where nearest defender either had a pass breakup or an interception), the third best among linebackers. He also allowed a 56 percent completion rate as the nearest defender, the third lowest among linebackers. He'll have his hands full with George Kittle. Anthony Barr might be the key, as 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will look to scheme up ways to get Barr into bad matchups and exploit them.
49ers: Kwon Alexander is expected back. He'll play limited snaps after recovering from a torn pectoral. Still, that's a big lift. Rookie Dre Greenlaw has risen to the occasion in Alexander's absence and Fred Warner has become one of the best linebackers in football this season. They are as fast and as relentless as they come.
Vikings: The Vikings have the two best cover safeties in the league in Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, according to Pro Football Focus. That's going to be really important as they look to shut down George Kittle in the middle of the field and force turnovers from Jimmy Garoppolo. The Vikings' cornerbacks, however, have been brutal this season. Xavier Rhodes has allowed a completion rate of 83.8 percent while Trae Waynes has allowed 72.4 percent. Yikes.
If the 49ers can take advantage of shoddy corner play the floodgates might open, but if Garoppolo gets loose with the ball things could get dicey against the talented safety duo of Minnesota.
49ers: Richard Sherman has been one of the best corners in the NFL this season. It's unlikely he'll be tested much Saturday. The Vikings are likely to go at Ahkello Witherspoon early and often, to see if he's the crack to exploit. Safety Jaquiski Tartt is slated to return from fractured ribs, as he was having a solid season before going down against the Baltimore Ravens.
If Witherspoon or Emmanuel Moseley can hold up opposite Sherman, the 49ers might be able to put the clamps on the Vikings and squeeze the life out of them.
Advantage: Push (49ers cornerback/ Vikings safety)
One offensive genius against one defensive guru.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer drew up the perfect game plan to stopping Drew Brees and the Saints' offensive attack. Now he'll go up against another coach who makes his living picking apart opposing defensive weaknesses.
Shanahan has been a wizard all season long, consistently dialing up the perfect play to hit the defense where it least expects it. He'll be looking at ways to pick on Barr, Rhodes and Waynes on Saturday, while keeping trying to keep Hunter and Griffen off Garoppolo.
I'd love to give the edge to the young wunderkind, but Zimmer did just fluster Sean Payton for 60-plus minutes, Tip of the cap.