Three keys for both the Vikings and 49ers
The divisional round starts Saturday night with the Vikings going to San Francisco as they face the top seeded 49ers. This game is projected to be the lowest scoring affair of the weekend as Vegas has the over/under for the game at 44.5. I expect the 49ers to win but wouldn't be surprised if the Vikings pulled the upset. Here's my three keys that will decide the game.
It's noteworthy to mention that the 49ers have had their last five games decided on the final play, expect a close game.
1. Run the ball: Both Jimmy Garopolo and Kirk Cousins have been criticized for not being elite quarterbacks at times. the game will come down in all likelihood to one of them making a big play.
While both quarterbacks may not be considered the best, both running games have been unstoppable this season. The 49ers boast the second best running game in the NFL averaging 144.1 yards per game (only the Ravens with their record-breaking ground attack have more per game). The Vikings have the sixth best rushing attack averaging 133.3 yards per game and led by 1000 yard rusher Dalvin Cook. Expect both teams to rely heavily on the ground attack. Both teams also have the second and third highest rushing percentages in the NFL so it should come as no surprise if both teams go to the run game in this game. Whichever team runs the ball more effectively will probably win the game.
This conversely implies that both defenses will be prepared to stop the run. I wouldn't be surprised if we see eight men in the box on defense for most of the game. This is also why I believe that even though the run game should be the deciding factor, both quarterbacks are going to have to make winning throws in order to win.
2. Take the X-factors out of the game: Playoff games are when good receivers noticeably disappear as they are taken out of the game with good game plans and even better defenders.
The two X-factors in this game are George Kittle for the 49ers and Stephon Diggs for the Vikings (especially considering Adam Thielen's status for the game). It is vital for both defenses to take them out of the game.
I see the Vikings possibly putting Anthony Barr at the line with a safety to shadow Kittle, Kittle capitalizes on the play-action pass as the linebackers lose him in the distraction. This will require Minnesota to have either safeties Harrison Smith or Anthony Harris keeping check on Kittle even though he has the height and weight advantage.
For the 49ers, they might move Richard Sherman around to shadow Diggs but if they don't, they in all likelihood will have double coverage for Diggs. Double coverage on Diggs might be more ideal for San Francisco, it insures that Sherman will take out the secondary receiver while Diggs will always be surrounded by multiple defenders.
If both defenses manage the tall task of taking out the X-factors, we will see the second or even third option making the difference in the game. For the Vikings I see Kyle Rudolph making the difference in the game and the 49ers will hope that Emmanuel Sanders is that player for them (they traded for a receiver for games like these).
3. Rotating the D-linemen: Both teams have exceptional defensive lines. It's noticeable when these D-lines have been disruptive and when they haven't, when they run out of energy both are non-factors.
The 49ers have let offenses drive down the field in the last two minutes of their last five game with ease and this is due to the fatigue of the defense and in particular the defensive line. Both teams need to constantly rotate their defensive linemen if they want to win. More importantly, the game will probably come down to a final two-minute drive and a sack could end the game in that situation, but that will only be possible if the stars on the D-line aren't tired out.
Both teams have great defensive lines and great depth on the defensive line. In a game like this, depth is key and the team that have greater depth and greater use of all their linemen will probably win and send their team to the NFC championship.