4:35 PM EST, NBC – Line: 49ers -6.5, Over/Under: 44.5
After an unpredictable Wild Card Weekend littered with surprises, we move on to the Division Round as the NFC’s No. One Seed, the San Francisco 49ers, play host to the Minnesota Vikings, fresh off their triumph last Sunday, from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Indeed, the Vikings (10-6, 2nd in NFC North) upset many a Playoff Bracket last weekend, with their 26-20 upset of the New Orleans Saints, a game that they controlled throughout, thanks in large part to a stellar display on Defense, coupled with the long-awaited postseason emergence of their Quarterback, Kirk Cousins (69.1%, 3,603 YDS, 7.20 NY/A, 26 TD, 6 INT, 59.8 QBR). By now, you should be well-versed in the story of Cousins, a former 4th Round Pick of the Washington Redskins, who would emerge as their Starter back in 2015, though would spend his final two years in the Nation’s Capital playing a literal game of chicken with the Front Office over a long-term contract extension. Washington refused to commit to the Pro-Bowler, franchising him in 2017 before allowing him to leave as an unrestricted Free Agent the following Summer. Minnesota, during this time, nearly reached the summit of the mountain, ending a remarkable 13-3 campaign with a loss in the NFC Championship Game, though convinced themselves that what they truly needed to get over the proverbial hump and bring the franchise it’s first Lombardi Trophy was an upgrade at Quarterback, with their own Signal-Caller, Case Keenum, also destined for Free Agency. And it was here that the two entities became one, as the club inked Cousins to a three-year contract, that was fully-guaranteed, the first of it’s kind in NFL History, immediately raising the stakes for both team and Quarterback. And it’s with that said that their first season together was nothing short of a disappointment, as the fit between the two sides never felt quite right, as the Vikings fell to an 8-7-1 finish, missing the Playoffs altogether. At this point, Cousins found himself squarely in that dreaded category of good but no great Quarterbacks who couldn’t win the big game, which were stigmas that up until Wild Card Weekend would cling to him throughout this season like bad body odor. And then Sunday happened, forcing the world to reevaluate the 31-Year Old in a different light. Considerable underdogs at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the visitors never wavered in their battle with the Third Seed, grinding their way to a commanding 20-10 lead in the latter stages of the Third Quarter, with Cousins engineering a pair of lengthy Drives on opposite sides of Halftime, both of which culminated with Third-Year Tailback, Dalvin Cook (250 CAR, 1,135 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 13 TD), barreling into the End Zone for a score. However, the hosts would eventually awaken in the final stanza, cutting the lead to Three Points inside of seven minutes, and driving deep into Vikings territory with an eye on taking the lead. Fortunately, the Defense, which was excellent throughout the affair, stepped up once more, with Defensive End, Danielle Hunter (70 TKL, 15 TFL, 22 QBH, 14.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR), strip sacking Drew Brees on a critical series in the Red Zone, allowing the visiting side to recover and bleed more of the clock. The Saints would regain possession in short order, ultimately sending the contest to Overtime courtesy of a Will Lutz, 49-Yard Field Goal. And this is where Cousins proved his worth, going 4-of-5 for Sixty-Three Yards on the final drive highlighted by a signature 43-Yard strike down the deep righthand side of the field to veteran Receiver, Adam Thielen (30 REC, 418 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 6 TD), setting up 1st & Goal from the 2-Yard Line, eventually hitting Tight End, Kyle Rudolph (39 REC, 367 YDS, 9.4 Y/R, 6 TD), for the walk-off Touchdown in the corner of the End Zone. When it was all said and done, the Vikings dominated the box score, outgaining the Saints 362-324, possessing the football for a staggering 36:56, rushing for 136 Yards and converting 10-of-18 Third Downs. Cousins completed 19-of-31 Passes for 242 Yards and a Touchdown, with the aforementioned Cook adding Ninety-Four Yards on Twenty-Eight Carries to his pair of scores. Thielen, who had missed six games this season with a nagging hamstring, found space to operate throughout the day, hauling in Seven Receptions for 129 Yards. Defensively, Mike Zimmer had to have been elated with his charges’ performance, relegating New Orleans potent attack to just Nineteen First Downs and 4-of-11 on Third Down, and becoming the first and only team in 2019 to force them into Two Turnovers. Hunter alongside fellow Edge Rusher, Everson Griffen (41 TKL, 11 TFL, 24 QBH, 8.0 SK, 1 INT, 2 PD), haunted Brees, sacking the future Hall of Fame Quarterback three times and hitting him on a combined six occasions. However, all anyone could talk about following the victory was Cousins, who after enduring a wealth of criticism from the fanbase and even some of his own teammates earlier in the season, earned his first Playoff Win after eight seasons in the league. We’ll see if there’s more to follow for the veteran, who will be looking to add a few more pages to this particular chapter of his story.
Meanwhile, though they were certainly one of the better stories of the season, now is the time in which we’ll see just how strong the 49ers (13-3, 1st in NFC West) really are. After one of the most dreadful eras in Franchise History, San Francisco have been utterly resurgent in 2019, due to a dominant Defense and an efficient Offense that has grown throughout the course of the season. General Manager, John Lynch, and Head Coach, Kyle Shanahan, deserve a wealth of credit for the groundwork that they laid throughout their first two years at the helm, even though they’d have to a wait a good bit for the results to arrive following a series of unfortunate injuries. However, they’ve been rewarded handsomely this year, with just about everything working in their favor thus far. After years of spending premium Draft Picks on Defensive Linemen, the Defensive Front has evolved into arguably the most threatening in the league, with the likes of Arik Armstead (54 TKL, 11 TFL, 18 QBH, 10.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD), Deforest Buckner (61 TKL, 9 TFL, 14 QBH, 7.5 SK, 2 FF, 4 FR, 1 TD, 2 PD), and Rookie, Nick Bosa (47 TKL, 16 TFL, 25 QBH, 9.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 2 PD), accounting for a combined Thirty-Six Tackles for Loss, Fifty-Seven Quarterback Hits, and 26.5 Sacks. under the direction of Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh, the unit as a whole has ranked among the league’s finest, allowing just 19.4 Points per Game (8th Overall), on 281.8 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including a league-low 169.2 Passing Yards (1st Overall) on 4.8 Net Yards per Attempt (1st Overall), while permitting a scant 33.3% success rate on Third Down (2nd Overall). Furthermore, they registered a healthy Twenty-Seven Takeaways this season (6th Overall), a sizable increase over last year’s meager total of seven, which was the lowest such figure in the league. The key has been those studs up front, for this is a Defense that has been able to make life miserable for opposing Quarterbacks without having to blitz much at all; San Francisco ranked Fifth Overall in Sacks (48), First Overall in Hurry Percentage (14.7%), and Second Pressure Percentage (28.7%), despite only blitzing on 20.9% of plays, which was the fourth-fewest in the NFL. On the opposite side of the football, the Niners’ Offense has evolved as the season has progressed, as they’ve added pieces along the way, whether by Trade or a return from injury. Long regarded as one of the elite playcallers in the league, Shanahan is now finally seeing the final product of this group that he began cultivating three seasons ago. Remember, this is a unit that was without both Starting Offensive Tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, due to injury for the first half of the term, with Pro Bowl Tight End, George Kittle (85 REC, 1,053 YDS, 12.4 Y/R, 5 TD), playing through a sore hamstring over the latter half, while veteran receiver, Emmanuel Sanders (66 REC, 869 YDS, 13.2 Y/R, 5 TD), was acquired midway through the year at the Trade Deadline. And that says nothing about the return from injury from Jimmy Garoppolo (69.1%, 3,978 YDS, 7.31 NY/A, 27 TD, 13 INT, 60.2 QBR), who missed all but three games in 2018 following a torn ACL. A poor Preseason and a slow start to the Regular Season left many wondering just what the Niners had in the form of Garoppolo, whom they acquired midway through the 2017 campaign in a high-profile trade with the New England Patriots. The young Quarterback played well down the stretch of that particular season, but his performance left a lot to be desired in his brief 2018 account before injury. However, this season has very much been the tale of two for the 28-Year Old; through the first seven games, he completed an efficient 69.8% of his Passes for an average of 212.7 Yards per Game on 7.55 Net Yards per attempt, but struggled with Turnovers, tossing Seven Interceptions and losing a pair of Fumbles in comparison to throwing Nine Touchdowns, but over the final nine outings managed to complete a comparable 68.6% of his Attempts for a much-improved 276.6 Yards per Game on 8.06 Net Yards per Attempt, with Eighteen Touchdowns in comparison to Six Interceptions, along with Three Lost Fumbles. It’s no surprise that he’s improved as he’s gotten more comfortable back on the field, coinciding with a far more fleshed-out Supporting Cast, that really makes this group one of the most balanced in the league. The question though will be how he performs in what will be his first Playoff Start. Remember, though he was a member of the New England Patriots for two Super Bowls (2014 and 2016) Garoppolo managed to make just two starts with the franchise that drafted him 62nd Overall six years ago, with none coming in the Postseason. Overall, this is a very young team altogether, with most of their number lacking any significant experience in the Playoffs. With that said, there are a few that could help show them the way; the aforementioned Staley has been with the club since 2007, taking part in three consecutive appearances in the NFC Championship Game (2011-2013), with veteran Tailback, Tevin Coleman (137 CAR, 544 YDS, 4.0 Y/C, 6 TD), plying his trade with the Atlanta Falcons (2016-2017), Sanders, who enjoyed consecutive trips to the Playoffs with the Denver Broncos (2014-2015), and of course Pro-Bowl Cornerback, Richard Sherman (61 TKL, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 1 TD, 11 PD), who led the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom to five straight Playoffs (2012-2016). All four players have participated in a Super Bowl, with the latter two hoisting the Lombardi Trophy with their respective clubs.