Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook broke a tackle and ran just short of the end zone in the second quarter against New Orleans. Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. – Wait, did Kyle Shanahan really call his 49ers team an underdog? Apparently so.

Colleague Mark Craig dived into the underdog motivational ploy to advance today’s Vikings-49ers Division Round game.

The idea that nobody is giving the Vikings a shot to win was so last week. Mike Zimmer can’t to use that line again, even though the Vikings are facing the No. 1 seed in the NFC on the road as underdogs.

Pundits who picked the Vikings to get steamrolled against the New Orleans Saints are picking them to knock off the 49ers this afternoon.

For that to happen, here are my three keys that must happen for the Vikings to advance to the NFC Championship game.

1. O-line repeat last week. Better yet, perform even better. I wrote about the importance of line play earlier this week and it bears repeating. The 49ers have perhaps the best front seven in the NFL. Their defensive line is a force. The Vikings line (plus tight ends) will need their best effort of the season today. 

If the line can handle its business, Dalvin Cook has a chance to get in a rhythm, zone running plays open up, Kirk Cousins gets more comfortable in the pocket, play-action passes create deception and everything just seems to click.

We’ve seen what happen to the offense – and Cousins -- when the line gets overwhelmed. Exhibit A: Green Bay, Monday night.

2. Create turnovers. The Vikings forced two turnovers last week – a fumble and interception by Drew Brews. The guess here is that they’ll need at least two takeaways again today to win. The defense has been stellar in this area, producing 31 takeaways this season, fourth-most in the league. A lot of that stems from getting pressure – they finished fifth in sacks with 48.

Zimmer unveiled an ingenious wrinkle against the Saints by moving Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter inside in pass-rushing situations to take advantage of the weak link on the Saints offensive line.

If the defensive line can keep constant pressure on 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, maybe they can force him into mistakes. Garoppolo accounted for 18 turnovers this season (13 INTs, five fumbles).


3. Contain Kittle. Big challenge here. My colleague Andrew Krammer wrote about the task of trying to limit All-Pro tight end George Kittle this week. Kittle has caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns this season.

He is a sparkplug. He energizes his team and home stadium when he punishes tacklers with broken tackles as he rumbles for yards after catch. He can change momentum with one catch and run. It will be interesting to see if Zimmer has a new wrinkle or creative plan to try and minimize Kittle’s involvement.

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