Richard Sherman anticipated the route for an interception and then watched the San Francisco 49ers run eight straight times for the touchdown that put them in control of their first playoff game in six years.
The dominant defense and powerful running game that carried the Niners to an 8-0 start this season delivered a 27-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round Saturday.
”People keep disrespecting us. At the end of the day, all you can do is go out and execute,” Sherman said. ”It felt good. That’s what we look like when we’re totally healthy.”
The return of injured defensive starters Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander and Jaquiski Tartt had the Niners (14-3) playing as they did in the first half of the season as they set a franchise playoff record by allowing only 147 yards.
Jimmy Garoppolo threw a TD pass on his opening drive as a playoff starter and then mostly watched his defense and running game take over from there. The top-seeded 49ers turned a pair of second-half turnovers by Minnesota (11-7) into 10 points.
”They’re pretty good right?” tight end George Kittle said of his defense. ”It’s such a blast just to watch them, how they work together. …
”If our defense keeps playing like that, all we have to do is not turn the ball over to win games”
Sherman set up Tevin Coleman’s second short touchdown run of the game when he beat Adam Thielen to the spot to intercept Kirk Cousins for his third career playoff interception.
Coleman had five of the eight carries on the 44-yard drive as part of a 105-yard rushing performance.
”Those guys did very well,” Coleman said of his offensive line. ”They moved the guys back so I had clear holes to run through. So, yeah, they did a real good job.”
Marcus Sherels’ fumbled punt later in the third quarter led to a field goal that made it 27-10 early in the fourth quarter.
San Francisco didn’t allow Minnesota to gain a first down for more than 27 minutes of game action starting late in the second quarter.
The Niners will host the NFC championship game next week against the winner of Sunday’s game between Seattle and Green Bay.
Garoppolo threw an interception deep in his own territory late in the first half and then spent most of the second half handing the ball off to Coleman and Raheem Mostert.
There was little reason for coach Kyle Shanahan to take chances the way his defense completely bottled up talented runner Dalvin Cook. That took away Minnesota’s play-action game and forced Cousins into becoming a drop-back passer.
”We didn’t do enough offensively to give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Cousins said. ”It hurts right now. It’s so raw right now, just falling short.”
Cousins finished 21 for 29 for 172 yards with his only big play coming on a 41-yard TD pass to Stefon Diggs in the first quarter.
Cook was held to 18 yards on nine carries as the Niners defense was back to its dominant early season form as the bye week helped the defense get healthy again.
”That was the No. 1 emphasis all week,” defensive lineman Nick Bosa said of the Minnesota running game. ”We knew we were facing probably the best back we’ve faced all year with Dalvin, and we knew we had to earn the right to pass rush. So, that’s what we did. We took the run as serious as we could, shut it down and then we ate.”
San Francisco had six sacks and held Minnesota to 81 yards until late in the fourth quarter.
Eric Kendricks intercepted a pass from Garoppolo late in the first half to give the Vikings the ball at the San Francisco 29. Minnesota couldn’t capitalize with Ford getting a third-down sack in his return to the lineup from a hamstring injury. Dan Bailey’s 39-yard field goal cut the Niners lead to 14-10 at the half. The interception was the 19th turnover this season by Garoppolo, who had the most giveaways in the regular season of any player who made the playoffs.
Garoppolo showed he has skills beyond his throwing. He threw a lead block on 255-pound linebacker Anthony Barr on a reverse by Deebo Samuel in the second quarter.
”Sometimes you have to remember you’re not just a quarterback, you’re a football player too,” Garoppolo said.
Samuel fumbled the ball on the play but replay ruled his knee was down, negating the turnover. That proved especially important when Coleman capped the drive with a 1-yard TD run.
The Vikings scored on their second drive of the game when Diggs outmaneuvered Ahkello Witherspoon for a 41-yard TD catch. It was the fifth TD pass allowed by Witherspoon in the past three games and he was replaced at cornerback the following drive by Emmanuel Moseley.