The San Francisco 49ers begin their first playoff run since 2013 with a divisional-round matchup against the Minnesota Vikings in the first playoff game of the weekend.
This wasn't the playoff matinee fans were expecting going into the first weekend of the playoffs. The Vikings earned their crack at the No. 1 seed with a stunning overtime win over the New Orleans Saints. Now they'll look to see if they can keep the magic going.
The Niners are back in the class of Super Bowl contender thanks to a dominant defense and efficient offense that racked up a 13-3 record in the regular season.
Just a week ago the narrative was that Kirk Cousins couldn't win a big game. Now he'll enter this one with Jimmy Garoppolo on the other side looking to avoid the beginning of the same narrative.
It's a compelling matchup that serves as a nice appetizer for the rest of the playoff action to come.
Date: Saturday, January 11
Time: 4:35 P.M. ET
TV Info: NBC
Odds: Minnesota at San Francisco (-7); O/U: 44.5 Odds via Caesars
When Minnesota has the Ball
Cousins may have got the monkey off his back by virtue of the Vikings picking up the win against the Saints, but he owes a lot of that success to running back Dalvin Cook.
The quarterback did a great job of putting the offense in good situations, protecting the ball and making throws when he had to, but Cook played the role of workhorse to a tee.
All in all, he had 131 yards on 31 touches and two touchdowns on the ground:
Against the Niners' nasty defense, he'll need to be a stud again. The San Francisco front has caused havoc for opposing quarterbacks all year. They are third in the league in sack percentage and will add a healthy Dee Ford to pair with Nick Bosa coming off the edge.
San Francisco has been susceptible to the run, though.
It is just 26th in the league in yards allowed per carry. In the final game of the season, the tandem of Marshawn Lynch and Travis Homer were able to get 96 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. It's safe to say Cook has had a much better season than the Seahawks' desperation tandem at the end of the season.
If the Vikings are to be successful in this game, they need a better performance from Stefon Diggs. The wide receiver was held to just two catches and 19 yards on three targets against the Saints.
Minnesota has rarely found a way to win when Diggs is held to those kinds of numbers. The receiver has been inconsistent all season, but there's definitely a correlation between his performance and the Vikings' success.
In wins, he has averaged 4.7 catches and 88.7 yards; in losses, he has been held to an average of 2.6 catches and 40.5 yards.
He'll need to get closer to his typical numbers in wins if the Vikings can lighten up the box and get the numbers they need in the running game for Cook to be successful.
When San Francisco has the Ball
Everything with the 49ers offense starts with George Kittle at tight end. There's little debate that he's the best tight end in the league and the biggest weapon San Francisco possesses on offense.
His best work happens after the catch where he is a load to bring down. His yardage after the catch numbers rank with some of the most dynamic athletes on the offensive side of the ball:
In his matchup with the Vikings we will find out if he's impervious to any matchup issue. Minnesota has been adept at defending tight ends this season. They've seen Hunter Henry, Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz and gave up zero touchdowns.
The last tight end to get over 100 yards against the Vikings was Darren Waller in Week 3 when he had 13 catches for 134 yards. Those are Kittle-type numbers, but that was a long time ago for this defense.
The Niners offense is a lot more than Kittle, though. Even if the Minnesota defense can slow or stop the tight end, they will have one of the league's best rushing attacks to worry about.
San Francisco is third in run-play percentage and second in the league in rushing yards as a result. Keying in on any one running back can be difficult. Raheem Mostert has been the hot hand recently, but Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman have led the team in rushing at various points, and the trio has only combined for three 100-yard games this season.
The Vikings aren't an elite run defense. They're 19th in the league in yards allowed per carry and 13th in yards allowed per game. That carried through against the Saints where they gave up 97 yards on 17 carries.
The Niners will be much more committed to the run than the Saints were, and that's where the battle will be won or lost.