(CBS San Francisco) — The San Francisco 49ers defense has been banged up the last part of the season and is giving up lots of points and yards. That includes 46 points to the New Orleans Saints and 31 to the Los Angeles Rams, with both Drew Brees and Jared Goff passing for well over 300 yards. They hope to welcome back linebacker Kwon Alexander from a torn pectoral muscle, along with pass-rusher Dee Ford and safety Jaquiski Tartt. Having those three on the field would certainly improve the profile of the 49ers defense.
With their divisional-round opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, averaging 25.4 points per game in the regular season, Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers offense may still have to keep pace in a high-scoring game. NFL Today and Inside The NFL analyst Phill Simms believes they can with a running attack that put up over 1,900 yards in the regular season with Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert. The Niners averaged 144.1 yards per game on the ground during the regular season, which put them second only to the Baltimore Ravens.
“You know why they’re a high-powered offense, because of the run game, because they do so many great things running the football,” says Simms. “And Kyle Shanahan is going to have five plays that the defense has never seen. And there are going to be guys wide open or uncovered, and they’re going to get big plays that way.”
The 49ers’ somewhat healthier defense will look to slow Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has a reputation for not rising up in the big moments, when the spotlight shines the brightest. It’s followed him from the Washington Redskins to the Minnesota Vikings, and through two regular seasons and multiple nationally broadcast games with his new team. Accurate or not, the reputation has stuck.
Cousins led the Vikings to a 26-20 win over the New Orleans Saints in Sunday’s Wild Card matchup. In his 19-31, 242-yard performance, he honed in on Adam Thielen, connecting seven times for 129 yards. But the signature play, among the prettiest anyone is likely to see in these playoffs, came in overtime. Cousins dropped a high-arcing, 40-yard pass right into Thielen’s arms. The receiver, who beat the defender by a couple steps, was ruled down at the Saints’ two-yard line. Two plays later Cousins found Kyle Rudolph’s outstretched arms in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown and the win.
Does such a game-winning drive remove all doubt that Cousins can lead these Vikings deep into the playoffs? NFL Today and Inside The NFL analyst Phil Simms doesn’t think so. “He removed doubt for this week. But if he plays bad this week, all the naysayers and the Kirk Cousins haters, they’ll be right back, ‘see I told you so, last week was lucky.’ And I tell all of them to shut up. He’s out there throwing the football and making plays.”
“That’s the business we are in, you’ve got seven days, and you’ve got to prove it again,” agrees Inside The NFL analyst Michael Irvin, to a point. “But if he goes all the way to the Super Bowl by playing well…”
Simms isn’t so sure. “Certain guys, no matter what, get the pass, and I’m not talking about just Tom Brady,” says Simms. “But other guys, everybody’s already got the narrative, and the narrative won’t change. We’re just waiting for it to happen.”
Garoppolo has fought his own negative narrative at times during his tenure with the 49ers. It’s only this season that he’s shown himself to not simply be a product of the New England Patriots system. A strong running game that takes the pressure off of Garoppolo has helped. But he may have to show more against the Vikings.
The 49ers play the Vikings Saturday @ 1:35 PT.
You can catch Phil Simms along with Ray Lewis, Brandon Marshall, Michael Irvin, and host James Brown on Inside The NFL every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.