In five previous playoff matchups dating back to 1970, the 49ers have beaten the Vikings four times, with their last postseason meeting happening in 1998, a third consecutive blowout by the 49ers. Today, San Francisco is the No. 1 seed in the N.F.C. and a heavy favorite to win, but the Vikings have momentum after beating the Saints in New Orleans, a much tougher place for visitors than Santa Clara, Calif. The other side of that equation is that Minnesota is a little more hobbled and bruised going into a game against a rested and dangerous opponent.
Here are highlights and analysis of the game.
What We Learned in the First Quarter
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 Garoppollo, 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.
The 49ers Offense vs. the Vikings Defense
One of the key matchups will be the San Francisco offense, designed by head coach Kyle Shanahan, against Minnesota’s defense, heavily influenced by Coach Mike Zimmer. San Francisco has the second-ranked offense in the league in terms of points scored (29.9 per game) and the Vikings defense was ranked fifth in the N.F.L. (18.9 points per game). The 49er defense is also well regarded, with one of the best players in the league, Nick Bosa. But it is trending in the wrong direction after a stout performance for much of the season. In the last four games, San Francisco has allowed an average of 31.8 points per game.
Kirk Cousins Has a Lot to Prove
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 is 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 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.”
49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s Big Test
This is a long-awaited day for San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He was Tom Brady’s backup on two Super Bowl championship teams, but this is his first playoff start, so who knows how he will respond to that pressure. Garoppolo, 28, has a 19-5 record as a starter in the regular season and is an excellent game manager who gets the ball out quickly as he whistles short slants over the middle for big yardage. Red Flags? He threw 13 interceptions this year but only three in his last six games. Perhaps the biggest knock on Jimmy G. is that he has small hands; he dropped the ball 10 times this year, half of which went to the other team.
The Vikings’ Potent Weapon: Dalvin Cook
For Minnesota, the key to the game is to run the ball with Dalvin Cook — mostly up the gut against the 49ers fast, sideline-to-sideline defense. Cook had 94 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints but San Francisco held him to 40 yards on 16 carries when they played last year. If Cook gets rolling, it will open up the passing game, particularly for throws off fake runs (known in football parlance as play-action passes), one of Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins’s best grooves. Cousins is also adept at rolling out to either side, which keeps defenses from overcommitting. But all of this predicated on pounding with Cook, because when the 49ers defensive line, led by Bosa and Arik Armstead, knows a pass is coming, it hunts quarterbacks. The Niners averaged three sacks per game, fifth most in the N.F.L.
Injuries Could Stymie the Vikings
The Vikings go into the game with a few health issues, most notably receiver Adam Thielen, whose ankle was strafed in practice by the cleat of a teammate during the week leading up to the game. The injury required stitches and Thielen will no doubt play. But his mobility could be hampered, especially if a cagey defensive back looks to get his feet tangled up with Thielen’s at some point. Thielen is good, but he only caught 30 passes this year and the 49ers will be more focused on wideout Stefon Diggs, who missed practices Tuesday and Wednesday with an illness. He is also expected to play and be fine. More worrying for the Vikings, their secondary is depleted with cornerback Mackensie Alexander out with a knee injury and safety Jayron Kearse out with toe and knee injuries.
The 49ers Last Home Playoff Game? 2013
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.