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Healthy 49ers defense dominates Vikings in Divisional Round win

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It would have been understandable if the San Francisco 49ers defenders took a moment to reintroduce themselves to each other before Saturday's 27-10 NFC Divisional Round victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

Seventy-two days had passed since they all had been in a game together, stunting a unit that, to that point, had held six of seven opponents to 17 points or fewer and had not allowed more than 20 in a game until Oct. 31.

But it was in that Halloween contest against the Arizona Cardinals that strong side linebacker Kwon Alexander tore a pectoral muscle that sidelined him for the rest of the regular season. Then strong safety Jaquiski Tartt broke a rib on Dec. 1 and was out the rest of the regular season. And on Dec. 8, defensive end Dee Ford aggravated a hamstring injury and missed the final three games.

The defense suffered accordingly. Including the game that Alexander failed to finish, the unit gave up 20 or more points in eight of its final nine, including 46 to the Saints and 31 to the Rams.

But with the gang back together Saturday on a cool yet sun-soaked afternoon in Levi's Stadium, the 49ers returned to steamrolling opposing offenses. They were so dominant they forced seven three-and-outs and allowed only two conversions on 12 third downs. So dominant they surrendered only 147 yards total, a franchise low for the Super Bowl era. So dominant they held the Vikings to 21 yards on 10 rushes and sacked Kirk Cousins six times, joining the 1985 Bears as the only units to hold a playoff opponent to 30 rush yards or less while recording six sacks.

"I was joking on the sideline that, man, it doesn't even feel like we've been out there," said linebacker Fred Warner.

San Francisco, which will host the winner of Sunday's Packers-Seahawks game in next week's NFC Championship Game, limited Minnesota to only 45 plays and had a nearly 17-minute advantage in time of possession. Through three-plus quarters, it had limited the Vikings to less than 100 yards and was threatening to break the league playoff record for fewest yards allowed in a game.

"Getting Dee back and getting Kwon (and) Tartt -- just having them on the field, it's a completely different energy," said rookie end Nick Bosa, who had a team-high two sacks. "It's the energy we had early in the year."

A return to health on defense is a major reason the 49ers will be a tough out in these playoffs. As much as we talk about the genius play-calling of head coach Kyle Shanahan, or the depth and proficiency of the run game, which produced 186 yards Saturday, including 105 by Tevin Coleman, or even the all-around brilliance of tight end George Kittle, defense is typically what carries teams through January and into February, and it's hard to imagine any unit wreaking more havoc than the 49ers. During the offseason, Shanahan once told me he would prefer having a top-five defense to a top-five offense because it would keep you in every game, and he believed he could scheme up enough points to win games.

The organization went about fulfilling that request in the offseason. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch knew they needed to upgrade the pass rush after managing only 37 sacks last season, fewer than all but seven teams, so they drafted Bosa second overall and traded for Ford, whom they signed to a potential $87.5 million deal over five years. They also knew they needed a presence on the second level of the defense, so they lured Alexander with a potential $54 million contract in free agency.

Those moves were instrumental in the early success of the unit. Combined with former first-round picks DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, who were already on the line, the defense went from good to dominant. It shut down the run this season on its way to 48 sacks, which tied for fifth in the league.

Much of the talk among the 49ers brass during Saturday's postgame was about the return of Ford, whose speed off the ball prevented the Vikings from sliding their protection to other players, notably Bosa. Ford was credited with only one sack but had two quarterback hurries and was a constant problem for Cousins, who finished 21-of-29 for 172 yards with one touchdown and an interception.

The unsung hero was coordinator Robert Saleh, who seemingly had the perfect call for every play. Even on the Vikings' lone touchdown, a 41-yard sideline pass to Stefon Diggs in the opening quarter, Ahkello Witherspoon was in great position but Diggs came back on the under-thrown ball to make the catch and find the end zone. Saleh is a candidate for the Cleveland Browns head-coaching job, and the performance of his unit did nothing to hurt his chances, although it would be foolish to judge any candidate off one game. (UPDATE: The Browns are planning to hire Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to be their new head coach.)

"Saleh put on a great performance and deserves consideration," said cornerback Richard Sherman, whose third-quarter interception led to the touchdown that put the Niners up 24-10. "He's called great games throughout the year. This was a masterpiece of him knowing his personnel, having his personnel, coming up with a fantastic plan, and us executing it. He deserves a ton of credit."

Sherman also should be near the front of the line when receiving platitudes. The veteran cornerback, who reached two Super Bowls with Seattle, winning one, has helped change a losing culture by setting an example for his younger teammates of what it takes to succeed. He has provided comfort when needed and been demanding when necessary. He also has brought an edge to the unit by constantly pushing himself to receive the respect he has earned.

At his locker-room stall, he told me there's only one place that refuses to acknowledge what he has done since entering the league in 2011: "A hater's mind," he said.

"They just never want to give me credit -- in the playoffs, during the season," said Sherman, who leads the league with 38 career INTs since 2011 (including playoffs). "I've been doing [this at a high level for a long time]. That pick? It was man (coverage), for all the people who say I can only play zone. But you know what they're going to do to me? They're going to make an excuse for why I'm great. Well, it was Kirk Cousins. But when somebody else does it, they're like, He's the best corner. You know? ... Haters want to hate me and treat me like a villain. They want me to fail, so they don't ever want me to get to where I'm supposed to get. It's frustrating."

Whether true or not, Sherman is using it as motivation. And the former Seahawk could ultimately have the last laugh if the defense continues to play as it did Saturday. And a handful of players said things looked and felt different.

"Having those guys back gave us even more confidence than we already had," Warner said. "You could tell just by how everybody was moving throughout the game and the week. We went out there standing tall. We had all the confidence that we were going to get the job done. We talked about it during the bye that we wanted to be on the upward trend going into the playoffs. You kind of saw that today. We're just getting started. We feel like we're getting hot. It's on to the next one."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter _@JimTrotterNFL_.

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