There are plenty of reasons to pick the 49ers in this one. But there’s something to be said for a team that’s starting to believe in itself, especially against an opponent that might not know how to handle the moment. The Vikings defy logic, keep momentum rolling and head to the NFC title game.
THREE BIG STORY LINES
A week after winning as 7½-point underdogs in New Orleans, the Vikings will face the top-seeded 49ers, who are favored by seven. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s claims that “both teams are underdogs” notwithstanding, the Vikings can use the nobody-believed-in-us angle as fuel once again.
Cousins, Shanahan square off
When Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Washington, the team used a fourth-round pick on Kirk Cousins to back up Robert Griffin III. Nearly eight years later, it’s Cousins who is trying to engineer his first trip to an NFC Championship Game by beating his former coach.
Can Thielen return?
Adam Thielen, who needed stitches on Wednesday after he was cleated in practice, is questionable for the game a week after posting 129 yards against the Saints. Thielen did not participate in the Vikings’ final practice Thursday; he’s expected to try to play, but it’s worth watching if his movement is impaired in any way by the bizarre injury.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Vikings defense vs. 49ers TE George Kittle
It will be a group effort trying to contain the NFL’s most prolific tight end, who gets the ball in a variety of different ways and had more yards after the catch than any wide receiver or tight end in the league. Whether it’s linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris or nickel corner Andrew Sendejo, containing Kittle is a must for the Vikings’ chances.
Vikings OT Brian O’Neill vs. 49ers DE Arik Armstead
Armstead, the 17th overall pick in the 2015 draft, might be the most formidable challenge on a 49ers defensive front that’s loaded with tall, physical players. The 6-foot-8 end had 10 sacks this season while doing an impressive job against the run. His power and length will make him one of the tougher tests O’Neill has faced in his second NFL season.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
27-9 The record of home teams coming off a bye in the divisional playoffs from 2010 to ’18, including 4-0 last season and 3-1 the year before.
THE VIKINGS WILL WIN IF…
They are able to win up front against a 49ers defensive line that’s difficult to run against and tough to keep down in pass protection, while their defensive scheme tricks Jimmy Garoppolo into a mistake or two and the Vikings can finish one more drive than the 49ers in the red zone.
THE 49ERS WILL WIN IF…
Their front seven overwhelms the Vikings offensive line, squeezes off running angles for Dalvin Cook on outside zone plays and forces Cousins into hurried throws, while their offensive speed gets the best of the Vikings’ defensive backfield.
GOESSLING'S PREDICTION: Vikings 20-16. Win probability: 50%