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Vikings-49ers: NFC Divisional Round preview

Viewers can watch the broadcast live on NBC at 4:35 p.m. ET, Jan. 11 as well as stream live on the NFL App and Yahoo Sports app.

The Backstory

The last time the 49ers and Vikings met was under far different circumstances, at the start of their disappointing 2018 seasons, not near the end of their promising 2019 proofs of concept. That matchup, a 24-16 Minnesota victory at U.S. Bank Stadium, marked Kirk Cousins' first game in purple and gold and Jimmy Garoppolo's first with the Niners after inking his franchise QB contract. Little can be gleaned from that Week 1 meeting, the first result in a campaign for both sides that would fall below expectations -- San Francisco and Minnesota missed the playoffs, the latter by just a game -- but that moment in time is a useful point of reference to show how quickly fortunes and expectations can change for teams on the precipice of greatness.

On Saturday afternoon, a healthy Garoppolo and the top-seeded Niners will play host to a reclaimed Cousins and the wild-card Vikings in the first playoff game played at Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium. Technically, Super Bowl 50 was also held at the Big Bellbottom, but for the storied 49ers, Saturday will be the true start of something new, their reintroduction to January football after five long seasons away. The Niners reached this point in the calendar in the third year of the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch experiment after two seasons of inconsistent quarterbacking (i.e. who was quarterbacking), underwhelming defense and injury woes. The injury bug hasn't left the building -- just ask Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Kyle Juszczyk, Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander, the latter two of whom are efforting comebacks this weekend. But San Francisco got its first full season in 2019 out of Garoppolo, who found reliable dance partners in rookie receiver Deebo Samuel and midseason acquisition Emmanuel Sanders, and saw Robert Saleh's defense turn a major corner thanks to the addition of Ford, Alexander and Nick Bosa and the resurgence of Richard Sherman's secondary. San Francisco lost just three games in 2019, its best result since 2011, but all three defeats came on the final score. If not for the last-second heroics of rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw in the Niners' season-finale win over the Seahawks, San Francisco might have lost four and been on the road this weekend, or worse. Yet, for all the close games the Niners drop, they win just as many.

The Vikings know a thing or two about pulling out one-score victories. That's how they got to the Divisional Round, withstanding a second-half Saints comeback in the Superdome, one that pushed the game to overtime, and scoring on the final play of the contest. In doing so, Minnesota pulled off the upset of Wild Card Weekend, knocking off a red-hot 13-3 Saints team that just missed out on home-field advantage (thanks, George Kittle). But more importantly, the Vikings' quarterback shed a label that hung over him and the organization, that of a big-game shrinker. Cousins did this by making the clutch throws and playing turnover-free football, but it didn't hurt to have a fully stacked deck for the first time in a while, with Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs all healthy. That deck could be cut this week, for, as of publishing, Diggs (illness) and Thielen (ankle) are both missing all or some of practice. To pull off a second upset on the road over a 13-3 conference giant in as many weeks, it would help to have all Vikings aboard the ship.

The 49ers are historically winners, five-time Super Bowl champions; the Vikings, pitiful losers, four-time Lombardi runner-ups. But it would be wise to throw out the history books on Saturday afternoon. Toss the trophies, disregard San Francisco's 4-1 record over Minnesota in the postseason, forget the Vikings' 2018 triumph. These versions of the Niners and Vikings are not what they once were, even 16 months ago.

Under Pressure

Xavier Rhodes and Vikings' pass defense: It's tough to game-plan for San Francisco's offense, given how Shanahan schemes his receivers open and the Niners use multi-purpose weapons like Samuel, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and all-world tight end George Kittle to disorient defenses. It's doubly tough when your formerly All-Pro cornerback is having a career-worst year and members of your secondary (Mackensie Alexander, Mike Hughes) are dropping like flies. Rhodes has allowed an 83.8 completion percentage in coverage this season, the second-highest of any cornerback since 2015, according to Pro Football Focus. Against Samuel and Sanders, he's outmatched. Against Kittle, he's toast. Minnesota will likely turn to its deeper linebacker corps and All-Pro-level safety tandem to handle the latter threat. Two potential matches are linebacker Eric Kendricks, who allowed a 53.7 comp. pct. in coverage (lowest for a LB since 2010), and safety Andrew Sendejo, who led the Vikes with 28 snaps last week in the slot, where Kittle most often lines up. San Francisco has too many dangerous pieces to be neutralized easily, but neutralizing Kittle is a place to start for Minnesota, even if the Rhodes are wide open for the Niners' new receivers.

Jimmy Garoppolo:Take a seat, Kirk Cousins. Your time under the harsh spotlight of media scrutiny is over, or at least postponed and diverted to your counterpart this weekend. Saturday will mark Garoppolo's first postseason as a starter -- he won two Super Bowls as Tom Brady's backup in New England. While Garoppolo has led San Francisco to dramatic victories and shepherded the offense to this juncture -- he owns the highest regular-season winning percentage (.808) of a QB making his first playoff start -- the face of the 49ers has yet to face postseason pressure. And on top of that, Jimmy G has to contend with the playoff legacies of Joe Montana and Steve Young, franchise quarterbacks of decades past, and the expectations of following in their cleat-steps. Physically, that's less daunting than staring down Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter on any given snap. But if Garoppolo slips up on Saturday and closes out a year in which Shanahan has earned more credit for the offense's improvements with a season-squandering loss, then the offseason debate about Jimmy G's viability as an heir to Montana's mantle will be relentless.

Matchup to Watch

Dalvin Cook vs. 49ers front seven:Cousins doesn't have the legacy-defining day he had last Sunday if not for the return of Cook, who became the first Vikings player last week since Adrian Peterson 10 years ago to rush for over 90 yards and two touchdowns in a postseason game. A healthy Cook allows Cousins to cook, making his lethal play-action game ever more so and freeing up Thielen, Diggs and Kyle Rudolph, given they're all healthy (and it's rarely a given). Minnesota will aim to get Cook going early against a Niners run defense that lags behind its pass defense in dominance. San Francisco allowed 4.5 yards per rush and 112.6 yards per game (17th) in 2019, and just two weeks ago let someone named Travis Homer and the Seahawks run for 125. For as stifling as the pass rush spearheaded by Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead is, San Fran's run defense is vulnerable, and the potential return of Ford and Alexander to the front seven might not be enough to slow Cook and keep Minnesota off the field.

Prediction

Cousins' "You like that!" exclamation in the Vikings' locker room following their Superdome super-upset is the type of galvanizing moment that makes media types like myself simultaneously swoon and cringe, a soundbite built for an "America's Game" episode yet to start pre-production. The narrative oozing out of Cousins' late-game heroics is the same one that emerged after the "Minneapolis Miracle" in January 2018 when the Vikings took out the Saints on the final play of the game. This is a quarterback and/or a team of destiny. And yet, no one recalls what came next when Minnesota traveled to play the top seed, riding a high, and saw its self-fulfilled prophecy fall flat in flea-flickin' Philadelphia. While I don't anticipate the Vikings to lay the same-size egg in Santa Clara, I do expect deja vu all over again, and Kurt-ains for the Minnesota melodrama.

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