(CBS San Francisco) — The San Francisco 49ers present a better matchup for the Minnesota Vikings than did the Saints. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good matchup for the underdog. The 49ers offensive and defensive units rank among the best in the league. The running game, behind Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert, can be unstoppable. The defense, particularly with Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander healthy, can be fierce.
Still, the Vikings’ win over the New Orleans Saints set them up as a popular upset pick coming out of Wild Card weekend. The NFC’s sixth seed had the momentum from a big overtime win. Their offense, with its full complement of weapons, looked formidable. Dalvin Cook showed up rested and healthy Sunday, working his way to 94 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Adam Thielen seemed to have regained his form, hauling in seven catches for 129 yards. And Kirk Cousins continued the strong leadership he’s shown the second half of the season, adding a signature overtime playoff drive to his growing resume.
But then Vikings nation received some bad news. Thielen suffered a severe cut to his ankle in practice on Wednesday, which required stitches. He will do “whatever it takes” to play Saturday, and the prognosis is good. But the latest injury report lists his status as questionable. As if that weren’t enough, fellow wide receiver Stefon Diggs missed a couple practices from illness. (The team will also be without corner back Mackensie Alexander and likely safety Jayron Kearse too.)
CBS Baltimore anchor Rick Ritter was leaning toward a Vikings upset before the Thielen news broke. “I wanted to talk about a surprise. A lot of it had to do with Adam Thielen and how healthy he is — or how healthy he was — and how great he looked last week. Then we have a report that came out of practice that Thielen got stitches in a cut that he sustained at practice. He’s now officially questionable for this weekend’s game.”
Thielen’s injury changes the equation for Saturday. “When Thielen is healthy, that entire offense gets going,” says Ritter. “It was good to see him back in a rhythm last week. It opens everything up for Diggs. It opens everything up for Rudolph. It allows Cook to get going more with the run game out of the backfield. With him iffy now, I’m leaning towards the 49ers, who obviously are the favorite in this one.”
Kirk Cousins and whatever Vikings play-makers take the field will see a rejuvenated Niners defensive unit across the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Kwon Alexander has returned from a torn pectoral muscle a week early, giving them a ‘priceless’ boost. Pass-rusher Dee Ford and safety Jaquiski Tartt will be on the field as well, as the 49ers return from a first-round bye relaxed and ready to go.
One place the Vikings may find success, at least on defense, is in the trenches. The Minnesota unit held the Saints, as a team, to under 100 yards rushing. (The 49ers, of course, are a much better rushing team than the Saints.) Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter combined to sack Drew Brees three times and pressure him on other occasions. And in an interesting twist, much of that pass rush came from the inside rather than off the edge. Can the 49ers offensive line adapt if the Vikings go this route again?
According to Ritter, “the matchup to watch is going to be the Niners offensive line versus the Vikings defensive front, with Everson Griffen and (Danielle) Hunter, maybe the best defensive front in the game. They got after Drew Brees last week. I expect them to do it again this week, going up against that 49ers offensive line, with (Mike) McGlinchey and Joe Staley.” With the 49ers offensive line stronger at tackles than along the interior, Jimmy Garoppolo could see a lot of pressure up the middle from Griffen and Hunter. He may have to improvise a little more in the passing game this week to get the ball to his play-makers.
“They’ve had a lot of time to prepare for this game as well,” notes Ritter. “Coming off some rest, they’ll have some fresh legs for sure. I expect San Francisco to pull this one out.”
The 49ers play the Vikings Saturday @ 1:35 PT.