The NFC’s top-seeded team, the San Francisco 49ers, took care of business as they defeated the 6th-seeded Minnesota Vikings 27-10 to reach the NFC Championship for the first time since 2014. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo earned his first playoff win in his first playoff start, while Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins dropped to 1-2 in the postseason.

Setting the Stage

Background, How the Teams Got Here, The Stakes at Hand – Feel Free to Skip Ahead to Game Recap

Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings came into the matchup a week after upsetting the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. Cousins, Minnesota’s $84 million man, earned his first career playoff win, outdueling Drew Brees and Sean Payton and emerging victorious in overtime. It wouldn’t have been possible without a strong showing on the road, in a tough environment, by Minneosta’s defense.

The San Francisco 49ers enjoyed Wildcard Weekend off after earning the NFC’s top seed with a 13-3 regular season. That’s not to say the 49ers haven’t been tested in high pressure environment, however. Their 48-46 win over the New Orleans Saints had extremely high stakes, and their Week 17 goal-line stand win over the Seattle Seahawks may as well have been a playoff game.

San Francisco rode an elite defense to their 13-3 record, as their 310 points allowed were the 8th-fewest in the NFL. But Minnesota’s defense was slightly more stringent in the regular season, allowing 303 points, the 5th-least in the NFL.

The 49ers defense was both more efficient and high-flying. Cousins and the Vikings had scoring woes in the early season, but warmed up as the season went on. More consistency could still be desired, but it’s hard to doubt the offensive capabilities that Cousins, Cook, Thielen, and Diggs posses when things are clicking.

Cousins, as mentioned, earned his first playoff win last week, elevating his career postseason record to 1-1. This is his first postseason with the Vikings, after leading the Washington Redskins to a 1st-round exit in the 2015 season.

Garoppolo starts his first playoff game, and the 28-year-old quarterback is only making his 27th career start with this game. For comparison, Cousins has started 90 games (including the postseason.) Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has already started 29 games.

Obviously, Garoppolo has been in the league since 2014. But between sitting behind future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady and injury-shortened seasons in 2017 and 2018, Garoppolo has yet to play two full seasons as an NFL starting quarterback.

Still, when he takes the field, he’s been elite. He holds an incredible 21-5 career record as starter, with 6,946 passing yards, 44 passing touchdowns, and 21 interceptions across his 26 starts.

For the 49ers, a win would set up an NFC Championship next Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, hosting the winner of Packers-Seahawks this week. The 6th-seeded Vikings would have to travel to Green Bay (an epic NFC North clash between Rodgers and Cousins) or Seattle (who would become the first wildcard team to host the NFC Championship, I believe.)

Game Recap

Couins, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Steffon Diggs, and the Vikings offense took the field first. But the drive was short-lived, as only Cook (2 rushes, 2 yards) and Cousins (0/1 passing) touched the ball.

Meanwhile, Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan’s offense wasted no time attacking Minnesota’s defense on their first drive. After a Matt Breida run to start the drive, Garoppolo attempted six passes on the next seven plays, completing five passes for 54 yards and a touchdown. He looked poised in the pocket, and his only incompletion bounced off the hands of tight end Greg Kittle. It was essentially a perfect first drive for Garoppolo in his first career playoff start.

After connecting with Samuel, Sanders, and Kittle, Garoppolo hooked up with Kendrick Bourne for a 3-yard touchdown.

Bourne, 24, is a third-year receiver out of Eastern Washington.

The Vikings looked on their way to another short, uncreative drive, but a defensive pass interference penalty gave them a first down and a new spark. Cousins would connect on four straight passes, but his fifth pass instantly made the game interesting.

A pressured Cousins aired out a long throw to Stefon Diggs, who not only hauled in the third down pass, but also kept his balance and scored to even the game at seven apiece.

On San Francisco’s next drive, the Vikings defense appeared to have the 49ers in a corner on 3rd and 10. As commentator Cris Collinsworth predicted, Mike Zimmer’s defense indeed dialed up the pressure on Garoppolo on this passing down. Garoppolo, swarmed by Vikings defenders, chucked up a pass as he was brought down, the type of pass that could easily lead to an interception.

But who was there? Kendrick Bourne.

Garoppolo was shaken up on the play, prompting the 49ers to call a first quarter timeout to give him and offense time to regroup. This wouldn’t exactly pay off, as Garoppolo was sacked for a 10-yard loss on a broken play coming out of the timeout. Garoppolo’s next pass was on course to be picked off by Vikings defender Eric Kendricks, with 49ers tight end Greg Kittle doing more to stop Kendricks from intercepting than pass than to try to catch the pass himself.

Garoppolo’s 3rd and 24 attempt never really had a chance, as his scramble and sack evasion attempts got him back to the line of scrimmage for a 0-yard gain.

The first quarter ended in a 7-7 tie, with both the offenses and both the defenses making big plays in the early going.

Vikings cornerback/punt returner Marcus Sherels muffed the ensuing punt, but the Vikings retained the ball and possession.

On Cousins next pass attempt, Arik Armstead was not fooled at all by a pump fake, taking down the quarterback for an 8-yard loss at his own 4-yard line. The sack would essentially end the drive just one play in, with a couple short rushing attempts before a punt.

As NFL reporter Dov Kleiman notes, Armstead is an impending free agent. Big sacks in big moments like this can only help the offseason payday he might enjoy with the 49ers or another team.

Facing another third and long, Garoppolo was able to find Deebo Samuel a yard behind the line to gain. The receiver fought forward for a first down, taking a beating from Vikings defenders along the way and through referee whistles that ended the play.

The 49ers called upon Samuel again on their next play, using a double reverse (which has recently seen a spike in usage) to get the ball into Samuel’s hands. Facing another swarm of defenders, it appeared that Samuel fumbled the ball away to be recovered by Minnesota’s defense. But after official review, the play was overturned and ruled a 6-yard gain by Samuel for the 49ers.

A few plays later, Garoppolo would find Samuel yet again, and the receiver nearly plowed his way into the endzone, refusing to allow his defender to bring him down at the original point of tackle. Garoppolo would try to punch it himself with a Tom Brady-esque quarterback sneak, and then Tevin Coleman rushed for a 1-yard touchdown on the next play.

Cousins and the Vikings offense would go three and out for the third time in four drives on their next possession. Minnesota was very fortunate Cousins and Diggs turned a third down play into a touchdown on their second drive, or things would be starting to get ugly.

Just like clockwork, the Vikings caught the break they needed just a moment later. Garoppolo, a couple passes into another potentially long drive, was intercepted by Eric Kendricks. This was Kendricks second attempt at the ball, and he didn’t miss this opportunity to create a turnover. The timely interception would set the Vikings up at San Francisco’s 29-yard line.

Cousins picked up one first down, connecting with Thielen for a 9-yard gain, but was sacked Dee Ford on 3rd and 11. Minnesota settled for a 39-yard field goal, and a manageable 14-10 halftime deficit.

The 49ers would kneel to end the half with 0:31 left, as they were already set to receive the second half kickoff.

A recap of the first half summarized in drive results:

Vikings

  • Three and out
  • Two first downs, 41-yard touchdown pass to Diggs
  • Three and out
  • Three and out
  • One first down, field goal

49ers

  • Four first downs, 3-yard touchdown pass to Bourne
  • Three first downs, punt
  • Four first downs, 1-yard touchdown run by Coleman
  • One first down, interception

Moral of the story, Garoppolo and the 49ers picked up at least one and usually multiple first downs every drive. The Vikings failed to pick up a first down on three separate drives. Minnesota was down just four points, but had to feel pretty fortunate considering their ineffectiveness at moving the ball.

To start the second half, Bourne extended the 49ers drive with an athletic catch on 3rd-and-6.

After plowing ahead with Coleman and Raheem Mostert, the 49ers eventually settled for a 35-yard field goal to extend their lead to 17-10 with 10:42 to play in the third quarter.

On yet another drive, Cook was stuffed and the Vikings couldn’t pick up a first down. But the results were even more disastrous, as a dangerous Cousins pass was picked off by cornerback Richard Sherman. It was just Cousins fourth incompletion in 14 attempts, but a costly one that would start the 49ers next drive at Minnesota’s 44-yard line (following a penalty on the return.)

The 49ers would gain all 44 yards on the ground to get into the endzone, calling on Coleman for five rushes and Mostert for two. Minnesota’s tired defense could stop the rushers, and Coleman eventually scored on a 2-yard run to put the 49ers up 24-10 with 4:54 to play in the third quarter.

First down check: Vikings 4, 49ers 20

For the fifth time in the game, the stifling San Francisco defense stopped the Vikings from picking up a first down on their next drive. Cousins appeared to have a pretty open running lane on 3rd-and-4, but instead attempted a high difficulty pass to a covered Kyle Rudolph.

Finally, the Vikings forced the 49ers into a short drive. For a second straight possession, the 49ers didn’t pass once, as Coleman gained 9, but not 10, yards on three carries.

Any glimpse of hope this may have given Vikings fans for about 30-40 seconds was erased by the 49ers punt. For the second time in the game, Vikings returner Marcus Sherels muffed the punt. This time, Minnesota wouldn’t be fortunate enough to recover the ball, as the 49ers took over at Minnesota’s 10-yard line.

A Garoppolo 4-yard pass to Kittle broke a streak of 12 straight running plays for the 49ers and allowed the clock to tick down to the fourth quarter.

The 49ers would settle for a field goal, extending their led further to 27-10: a three-score lead in the fourth quarter.

Desperate for anything, perhaps their 5th first down, Cousins and the Vikings were locked down once again. Cousins was dropped for 7-yard loss by Nick Bosa to end the drive before a single first down was picked up: for the 6th time in the game. Bosa was shaken up on the play, but quickly regained his energetic demeanor, assuring the home crowd everything was okay.

After forcing a quick 49ers punt, the Vikings were set up with pretty decent field position.

Right on cue, the Vikings offense went three-and-out for the 7th time in 9 drives. DeForest Buckner ended this drive on a 3rd-down sack.

I’d say Minnesota’s hopes at winning this game basically ended on Sherels’ muffed punt (if not even earlier than that.) But with under 9 minutes left to play in the fourth quarter, down three scores and unable to pick up a first down, there was no doubt at this point the Vikings were done for the season.

The Vikings would pick up two first downs on their next drive to bring their game total to six: entering a tie with the 1961 New York Giants and 2000 Baltimore Ravens for fewest first downs in a playoff game.

The game’s outcome was never in jeopardy, but I found the Vikings play-calling on their final offensive plays puzzling. On 3rd and 1, down three scores, picking up the first down isn’t exactly the top concern. Minnesota should’ve taken a shot on this play, then if needed, pick up the 4th-and-1 on the next play. Instead, they rushed to no avail on 3rd down, and took a shot to Diggs on 4th down. Again, it doesn’t do much to change the outcome, but just a testament of the Vikings offensive woes.

After the 49ers fumbled on 4th down, the Vikings would get the ball once more, picking up their 7th first down (avoiding the record-low) but also allowing Cousins to be sacked again.

While the game looked exciting with a 7-7 start, the 49ers dominance rushing the ball and preventing the Vikings from rushing the ball allowed them to control the game from start to finish.

Highlighted Stats

Quarterback Comparison

MIN Kirk Cousins: 21/29, 172 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT (sacked 6 times for 46 yards)

SF Jimmy Garoppolo: 11/19, 131 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT (sacked 2 times for 9 yards)

Skill Positions

SF Tevin Coleman: 22 rushes, 105 yards, 2 TD

SF Raheem Mostert: 12 rushes, 58 yards

MIN Dalvin Cook: 9 rushes, 18 yards

SF Kendrick Bourne: 3 catches, 40 yards, TD

SF Deebo Samuel: 3 catches, 42 yards

MIN Adam Thielen: 5 catches, 50 yards

MIN Stefon Diggs: 2 catches, 57 yards, TD

Team Stats

  • First Downs: SF 21, MIN 7
  • Total Yards: SF 307, MIN 147
  • Rushing Yards: SF 185, MIN 21
  • Passing Yards: MIN 126, SF 122
  • Turnovers: SF 2, MIN 2
  • Time of Possession: SF 38:27, MIN 21:33

Player of the Game

San Francisco’s defense deserves an honorable mention, but too many different players made an impact to give it to any one. Nick Bosa was especially helpful in the pass-rush with two sacks, but he was aided by Ford, Buckener, and more.

Kendrick Bourne had an early lead, with three catches for 40 yards and a touchdown. Bourne’s three catches came at big times, in high difficulty scenarios, or both.

But the player of the game has to be running back Tevin Coleman. Coleman was hard-working, disciplined, and fought for extra yards all game. His longest run was only 11 yards, but he averaged 4.8 yards per carry which was instrumental in keeping the ball moving for the 49ers.

Looking Forward

The San Francisco 49ers will host the NFC Championship against the winner of the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. The 49ers last appeared in the conference championship round three straight seasons from 2012-2014. Interestingly, their first appearance in this stretch was under Alex Smith, before Colin Kaepernick led them to the championship round twice.

In their January 2014 meeting with the Seahawks, Russell Wilson led a 10-point fourth quarter to defeat the 49ers and reach the Super Bowl. A rematch is possible if the Seahawks beat the Packers on Sunday. Seahawks-49ers also produced two of the best games of the 2019 NFL regular season, so a third round with a Super Bowl trip on the line would be more than welcomed.

The Minnesota Vikings took a step forward with a playoff win, and should be back next year to compete with the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.

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Header photo: Tony Avelar/Associated Press

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