Saturday, January 11, 2020

How the 49ers Beat the Vikings to Advance to the N.F.C. Championship Game

Jimmy Garoppolo threw for a touchdown and an interception in his first playoff start, a 49ers victory to advance to the N.F.C. championship. Credit - Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The greats came back on Saturday, flooding a frothing Levi's Stadium to watch their treasured San Francisco 49ers engage in a pastime foreign to their fan base for so long: playoff football. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Bryant Young - they all showed up, flocking to witness the latest stage of the 49ers' revival, six years in the making.

How familiar it must have seemed to them, the top-seeded 49ers in the postseason again, winning again, defeating the upstart Minnesota Vikings, 27-10, to advance to the N.F.C. championship game. San Francisco's opponent will be determined on Sunday when the Seattle Seahawks visit the Green Bay Packers. But it is certain that the 49ers, having never played a postseason game at Levi's before Saturday, will now host two this month, with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake next Sunday.

This incarnation of the 49ers suffocates quarterbacks with pressure and deflates offenses with a quickness. No one wearing purple seemed capable of countering all that San Francisco flaunted: Minnesota did not surpass 100 total yards - yes, 100 - until late in the fourth quarter.

And this incarnation of the 49ers prefers to demoralize defenses with a running attack that crushes souls with speed and repetition. On Saturday that meant rushing 47 times for 186 yards. The 49ers dominated in all facets - outgaining Minnesota by 159-83 at halftime, with a 14-4 margin in first downs. But the game did not tilt until the Vikings' first drive of the second half, when quarterback Kirk Cousins, a week after winning at New Orleans to slay the narrative that he wilts in big games, was intercepted by Richard Sherman. Eight plays later - all runs - San Francisco scored to lead 24-10.

49ers running back Tevin Coleman (26) scored two rushing touchdowns. Credit -Kelley L Cox/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
"When you go an entire drive just running the ball, you just feel like you're imposing your will and it just gives you a ton of confidence on the offensive side," San Francisco fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "It makes it so tough for defenses when there are long drives like that, and things are physical. It's just tough to hold up for the rest of the game."

The way sixth-seeded Minnesota won last week in New Orleans - a comprehensive effort powered by a balanced offense and Coach Mike Zimmer's outfoxing of Sean Payton, one of the league's preeminent play-callers - reasserted the Vikings' candidacy in a robust N.F.C.

But with an extra week of rest, having earned a bye for the wild-card round, the 49ers looked refreshed, energized and fast. They looked like themselves. Their sideline-to-sideline speed erased Dalvin Cook, who rushed nine times for 18 yards, and their defensive front, boosted by the return of Dee Ford, smothered Cousins, who finished 21 of 29 for 172 yards and sacked him six times.

"We all understand what we've got to do. And we scare everybody," Ford said after the game.

The 49ers' Week 13 loss at Baltimore, on a field goal as time expired, was the first of five consecutive games decided in the final 10 seconds. There was no such suspense on Saturday. As the 49ers suppressed Minnesota in the second half, holding the Vikings scoreless, red-clad fans stood and roared. The outcome was assured, and so, too, was the prospect of hosting another game, for a trip to the franchise's seventh Super Bowl. Just imagine all the Bay Area royalty who will be there for that.

Here is how the 49ers beat the Vikings:

The Vikings' fate is sealed.

After a key defensive stop by the Vikings, the 49ers’ Raheem Mostert (31) recovered a muffed punt by Minnesota inside the red zone. Credit - Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Robbie Gould kicked a field goal for the 49ers, capitalizing on a Vikings error to expand their lead to 27-10. The Vikings had dug themselves into a deeper hole after Marcus Sherels muffed a punt inside his own 15 and 49er Raheem Mostert recovered it on the Minnesota 10. This came after the Vikings made a strong defensive stand to stop Tevin Coleman on third-and-1 to force the punt.

The 3rd quarter was all 49ers.

This game tipped drastically in the third quarter as San Francisco's physical advantage asserted itself. The Vikings, who played a tough game last week, had one possession in the quarter and never got a first down. The 49ers, meanwhile, added 10 more points, and then another field goal to open the fourth. Overall, San Francisco's time-of-possession advantage improved to 31:18 to only 14:29 for Minnesota, which still only has four first downs. Minnesota, which needed yards from Dalvin Cook, has only 14 rushing yards in the game.

Coleman is running over the Vikings.

Tevin Coleman (26) put the 49ers up by two scores with a touchdown in the third quarter. Credit - Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Tevin Coleman scored his second touchdown and the 49ers took a commanding lead, 24-10, with 4:54 left in the third quarter. Richard Sherman gave them the ball with an interception and San Francisco just pounded it down the field with eight running plays to assert their physical dominance. Coleman has been very good, running for 67 yards on 14 carries for a 4.8 yards-per-run average.

The Vikings make a costly mistake.

Richard Sherman made a key interception that set up a 49ers touchdown. Credit - Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Brutal start for the Vikings, who surrendered a field goal on the first drive and then a few plays later Kirk Cousins threw an interception to Richard Sherman. It was Cousins' first interception in three playoff games. The pass was intended for Adam Thielen, who seemed to be crossed up on the play and did not turn around for the ball.

San Francisco got the field goal back on the first drive of the second half and increased their lead to 17-10. The big play was a great third-down catch by Kendrick Bourne, who soared high between two defenders to catch the pass at the Minnesota 37.

At best, it was classic bend-don't-break defense by the Vikings, who held on the final third-down play to force the kick.

The game is in danger of swinging irreparably in the 49ers favor.

It was an entertaining first half.

Garoppolo was steady in a dominating first half for the 49ers. Credit - Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
It was an entertaining first half. San Francisco is clearly the better team, but Minnesota refused to let the game get out of hand. The interception toward the end of the first half enabled Minnesota to kick a field goal and go into halftime trailing, 14-10. It could have been much worse for the Vikings.

San Francisco has dominated the ball a bit more than the score would indicate, notching 14 first downs to only 4 for Minnesota. Jimmy Garoppolo has looked like, well, Jimmy Garoppolo. He made a lot of nice, crisp throws, showed resilience and toughness, but also threw a bad interception to Eric Kendricks.

Kirk Cousins went 10 for 12 for 81 yards and the touchdown to Stefon Diggs, but the San Francisco defense has bottled up Dalvin Cook, holding him to 11 yards on 6 carries. It will be interesting to see if Minnesota tries to get him going, or decides to abandon that line of attack.

The 49ers also subbed out cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon for Emmanuel Moseley after Witherspoon made a couple of bad mistakes early on. The 49ers defensive line has lived up to its reputation.

The Vikings kicked a late field goal.

An interception by Eric Kendricks set up a field goal by Vikings kicker Dan Bailey late in the first half. Credit - Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Dan Bailey kicked a 39-yard field goal as the second half ended, to narrow the 49ers' lead. An interception set it up but the 49ers otherwise dominated in the first half.

The 49ers take the lead on a run.

What a momentum shift. It looked like Deebo Samuel had fumbled and the Vikings had the first turnover of the game, but after a review, it turned out his knee was down before the ball came out. San Francisco went on to score a touchdown on Tevin Coleman's 1-yard plunge.

But this was really Samuel's drive. He fought his way to a first down after initial contact, and also caught the pass that got the ball to the one-yard line. From there it was only a question of when. The 49ers had 23 rushing touchdowns this season, the most in the N.F.L.

What we learned in the first quarter.

Stefon Diggs of the Vikings scored on a 41-yard pass from Kirk Cousins. Credit - Ben Margot/Associated Press
That was a good first quarter for the Vikings, who withstood an opening drive by the 49ers, went down and scored for themselves and then forced a punt. Mike Zimmer's defense started applying pressure on Garoppolo, who was sacked and also came up hobbling after he twisted his ankle. One thing to keep in mind about Garoppolo: he may be fragile. He suffered a serious shoulder injury when he was with the Patriots and blew out his A.C.L. last year. He is not necessarily a runner, but he has good mobility that helps him avoid pressure. When healthy, he can throw very well on the run.

How the Vikings made their first score.

Terrific response from the Vikings, who marched 79 yards in 7 plays to even the score, 7-7. The touchdown came on a 41-yard pass from Cousins to Stefon Diggs as San Francisco defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon fell down and Diggs went back to get the pass and waltzed in untouched. It was a smart play by Diggs to turn back for the ball as Witherspoon hit the turf.

A key play was actually the third play of the drive when Cousins took the heat of a 49er rush and completed the pass for a first down. A punt there would have been disastrous. Cousins also took a crunching hit from Arik Armstead on a naked bootleg and completed that pass, too. That drive sent a message.

How the 49ers made their first score.

San Francisco took the lead on a Jimmy Garoppolo touchdown pass after a near-perfect first drive. They went 61 yards in 8 plays and Garoppolo was 5 for 6, with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne on a simple slant.

It was the worst possible beginning for the Vikings, who went three and out on their first possession. Their offensive line was on its heels, Kirk Cousins looked a bit nervous waiting for the snap on that third-down pass, and his throw was very high. This will not help Minnesota keep the crowd out of the game.

Kirk Cousins has a lot to prove.

The 49ers’ Dee Ford sacked Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was intercepted by Richard Sherman in the third quarter. Credit - Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
After going seven seasons without a playoff win, and with a reputation for choking in big games, Kirk Cousins enters the game with a chance at two huge wins in a row.

But against one of the best defenses in the league, is it too much to ask Cousins to pull off another stunning upset on the road?

Cousins went into the playoffs with an 0-1 record in the postseason (small sample size, indeed) and a 6-30 career record against winning teams as a starting quarterback. But he resembled Tom Brady when he led the Vikings to an unlikely win over the Saints in New Orleans, sealing the victory with a precision drive and a deft touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph in overtime.

Cousins' passer rating of 107.4 was fourth-best in the N.F.L. this year, but he was not named to the Pro Bowl. A place in the N.F.C. championship game would augment his redemption tour.

Critics will still point to Cousins' overall record in big games, and some have even equated his 0-9 record on Monday nights as a further indication of how he shrinks under pressure. We'll see over the next three hours, but according to Vikings teammates, the choker label is unfair.

"All we've heard is Kirk Cousins this, Kirk Cousins that," Rudolph told reporters after the electrifying win over the Saints. "Playoff games, big games on the road, so much nonsense. It takes 10 other guys on offense, and I said that all year long."

The 49ers last home playoff game? 2013

Colin Kaepernick passed the ball against the Falcons in the N.F.C. Championship game in Atlanta. Credit - Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
This is San Francisco's first home playoff game in seven years. The last one? A win against Green Bay, 45-31, in a divisional-round game. The 49ers quarterback was Colin Kaepernick. He ran for 181 yards, a record in the N.F.L. in a regular or postseason game. He passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers went on to beat the Falcons in the conference championship game but lost to the Ravens in the Super Bowl, 34-31. Kaepernick, of course, has since become an emblem of player protests against social injustice. He has not played in the N.F.L. since 2017 after kneeling during the national anthem at games, inspiring a host of other players to do the same. He settled a case accusing N.F.L. owners of colluding to keep him out of a job, and this past season conducted a workout under chaotic circumstances that left him and the N.F.L. pointing fingers.


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