San Francisco (13-3 SU, 9-6-1 ATS) returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, having finished atop the NFC with one of its best seasons over the past 35 years. This new version of the 49ers still has a lot to prove to garner further mention among the franchise’s top teams, much less the ones that reached three straight NFC championship games under Jim Harbaugh.
This is a new group that is tasting success for the first time. Jimmy Garoppolo, who struggled earlier in the season as he returned from an ACL tear, will be making his first postseason start. Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium will host the Niners’ entire run since they were able to edge the Saints in comeback fashion in New Orleans and then held off the Seahawks by an inch in Seattle. Mix in a dominant performance at home against Green Bay in Week 12 and the 49ers have definitely earned the right to remain at home for as long as they’re alive.
That didn’t do New Orleans much good against Minnesota (11-6, 10-7) last week in the biggest upset of Wild Card Weekend. The Vikings closed as a seven-point underdog and responded to blowing a late lead by breaking through with a touchdown to open overtime. The Vikes won 26-20 on Kyle Rudolph’s touchdown catch on third down and deserved to come out on top, controlling the game against the Saints with a strong performance from RB Dalvin Cook and his offensive line. A defensive backfield decimated by injuries held up against a Brees-led passing attack and Kirk Cousins put together a number of clutch throws to help deliver the upset.
The bye should certainly help the 49ers, who had multiple bumps and bruises they had to overcome throughout December, but don’t make too much of the Vikings coming in on a short week after winning last Sunday afternoon.
Although they do have a day less to prepare compared to the conventional week-to-week NFL grind, it’s not like Minnesota is being asked to turn around and play on a Thursday night. The Vikings won two of their three games without a full week’s preparation and covered all three times.
The 49ers opened as a -6.5/-7-point favorite, which is where the figure continues to hover at as kickoff approaches. It’s no secret that Minnesota will look to test its physicality against a team that has excelled at what Mike Zimmer terms “big-boy football,” getting lined up and blocking and attempting to establish the run. The Vikings finished sixth in the NFL in rushing, while San Francisco ended up as a middle-of-the-road run defense, coming in 17th.
A pass defense that was the best in all of football (169.2 ypg) ultimately allowed the 49ers to finish second in fewest total yardage surrendered, so you don’t have to wonder what Minnesota is hoping to establish. If they’re successful early in getting Cook going, they could effectively utilize play-action if Cousins can accurately throw downfield. Although his streak of losses in primetime games continued in 2019, he’s enjoyed an effective season and is 9-3 straight up in day games.
Cousins has props of 230.5 passing yards and 1.5 passing touchdowns available at the Westgate Superbook. He’s expected to have his full complement of receivers available with Adam Thielen set to play through an ankle injury. Cook’s rushing yard number was set at 80.5, which is a little risky since the Vikings are likely to mix in rookie Alexander Mattison early in order to ensure Cook will be fresh enough for a final push.
Garoppolo attempted a pass back in the 2014 postseason while winning a Super Bowl as a rookie with the Patriots but will come into this contest looking for his first completion. The Westgate placed his props at 20.5 completions and 1.5 touchdown passes. He’s favored to throw an interception (-145). My free pick here would to ride the ‘under’ on Garoppolo completions. Although there’s danger in him finding George Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Deebo Samuel on short routes, he’s only completed more than 20 passes in seven of his 16 outings and did so only twice over the last six weeks.
Minnesota’s pass defense finished 15th, but since the team’s strength lies in their pass rush, it’s likely that 49ers head coach Mike Shanahan employs the run often. Running it early to ensure Garoppolo can settle down makes a first-quarter ‘under’ attractive. Raheem Mostert has emerged as the primary back and figures to get plenty of work to try and neutralize a unit that finished fifth with 48 sacks and picked up 31 takeaways, ranking fourth in the NFL. A red-zone defense that ranked second in the NFL in keeping opponents out of the end zone could also present issues for the Niners. Mostert scored rushing touchdowns in six straight games and is -110 to do so again per the Westgate.
The Vikings come in with a depleted secondary after ruling safety Jayron Kearse out with knee and toe injuries. Corner Mackensie Alexander was unable to come back from a knee injury and had surgery on Thursday. Corner Mike Hughes was lost late in the season and veteran Xavier Rhodes has been picked on, so there could be opportunities if Garoppolo is sharp. San Francisco is much healthier, activating linebacker Kwon Alexander from a torn pectoral, the same injury that had sidelined Houston’s J.J. Watt. Alexander was the heart of the 49ers’ defense before going down. Pass rusher Dee Ford and safety Jaquiski Tartt are also back in the mix for an aggressive unit that excelled most of the season.
San Francisco is 4-1 in the playoffs against the Vikings, with every meeting coming in the divisional playoff round. None of that really matters, but it is worth knowing that the 49ers have only won one of the last five matchups against Minnesota over the past 12 years, last falling in Week 1 of 2018 by a 24-16 score. Garoppolo was intercepted three times despite throwing for 261 yards. Cousins threw for 244 yards and two scores in his first game as the Vikes’ quarterback. San Francisco won the lone meeting at Levi’s back in ’15, rolling 20-3.
Temperatures will be in the 50’s and wind gusts will be minimal in Santa Clara, so weather shouldn’t play a large role. For that reason, I also love the prop requiring both teams to knock down field goals of at least 33 yards to cash at +110 (Westgate) since both teams have accurate kickers and solid red-zone defenses.