Minnesota Vikings @ San Francisco 49ers: Underdogs Minnesota can push Niners on Saturday night

Kirk Cousins and the Vikings upset New Orleans last week

They were giant killers in the Wild Card round, but can Minnesota repeat the trick against the NFC's number one seed? Mark Kirwan says it'll be close...

"As important on offence was Dalvin Cook, who also returned from a spell off due to wear and tear. He pummelled the Saints defence for 130 scrimmage yards and two TDs, which allowed Cousins the opportunity to hit Thielen off play-action with a long bomb in over-time that decided the game."

Minnesota Vikings @ San Francisco 49ers
Saturday, 21:35
Live on Sky Sports Action

Vikings defence making offence work

Minnesota pulled off another stunning playoff victory over the Saints last week and their reward is to face the current Super Bowl favourites on their home turf.

At least they're well-practiced in upsetting the odds.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins has had plenty of doubters, but Sunday's win ought to go some way to correct the story that he couldn't win when it mattered. That's the line on the quarterback - he'll beat bad teams, but when the heat is on you can't rely on him.

All of which probably sounds alright if you're a Minnesota player who doesn't wear the number eight shirt.

Players like those in their secondary, for instance. Minnesota have had one of the more consistent defences in recent years, but their defensive backs have dropped their standard of play this season. Coach Mike Zimmer built his reputation as a defensive coordinator so will be disappointed to see the D slip from fourth to fourteenth in total defence this season.

Injuries, as ever have played a part. Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes are absent for this game again. Their missing of the Saints game ought to have cost Minnesota more against the powerful Saint offence, but in crucial situations - third-down and in the red zone - Zimmer's adjustments, particularly switching Andrew Sendejo to nickel back and changing his defensive line starters around, meant the defence bent but did not break.

For example, Adam Thielen's early fumble only cost them three points, not seven, and the receiver went on to have a huge game after an injury-plagued season.

As important on offence was Dalvin Cook, who also returned from a spell off due to wear and tear. He pummelled the Saints defence for 130 scrimmage yards and two TDs, which allowed Cousins the opportunity to hit Thielen off play-action with a long bomb in over-time that decided the game.

That win means the Vikings have now won five straight with Cook and Thielen starting. Nothing can be simple though, so Thielen managed to hurt his ankle this week in practice, and that has made him questionable for this game.

Already facing a tough challenge, losing Thielen would add another level of difficulty to this Divisional round match-up.

Niners need to tighten up

There's some similarity in San Francisco's story this season, at least on defence. They started hot, but as the season progressed and injuries mounted their play has regressed significantly.

They allowed just over 19 points per game in the regular season. Not bad. The trouble is they allowed an average of almost 32 points per game in the final four weeks of the season.

That is bad timing for a club looking to win its first Super Bowl since the early nineties.

The downturn has coincided with some significant absences, particularly linebacker Kwon Alexander and situational pass rusher Dee Ford.

Alexander was shunted to injured reserve nine weeks ago with a torn pectoral muscle but has been reactivated ahead of this game. Those expecting a JJ Watt-like performance - it's the same injury the Texans wrecking ball returned from last week - may not be far off the mark given his importance to this team.

The Niners haven't just been dependent on strong defence in the earlier weeks of the season for their NFC-topping record this season though. Jimmy Garoppolo has improved as the season has gone on and his rapport developed with rookie Deebo Samuel and the traded-for veteran Emmanuel Sanders.

George Kittle looks as close to unstoppable as any player in the league - he accounted for over one-quarter of all Jimmy G's passing yards this season, and his rampaging catch-and-run in the dying seconds of their Week 14 game against New Orleans was the difference between them playing last week and having a bye.

It's the running game that has looked capable of blowing teams away though. Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman have largely shared the responsibilities in recent weeks, but Mostert leads the team in ground yardage and TDs and will likely be the first option for coach Kyle Shanahan in this game.

After containing Alvin Kamara last week, Minnesota now have San Fran's three backs coming off a bye to contend with.

The Picks

This weekend is usually the high point of the season - four games between the eight best teams in the league - but the spreads this week are hovering around a TD or above suggesting we should not expect many tight games.

The line is bang on seven points in this and seems fair to me given the inconsistency of the Vikings. They were spanked a matter of weeks ago by the Packers, albeit without Cook and his back-up, Alexander Mattison and then beat the Saints last week.

That showing does suggest they can give the Niners a game. They were on the road in one of the toughest buildings to play in the league and held New Orleans' powerful offence in check well into the fourth quarter.

San Francisco do not have a Mike Thomas-like wide receiver to challenge their shaky cornerbacks either. The Minnesota linebackers and safeties can cope with passes across the middle of the field, so that gives them a chance.

Offensively, Thielen's health will be important. The 49ers' Alexander is not guaranteed to be the usual performer either given how he's coming back from injury ahead of time.

If Dalvin Cook can get going, they'll be competitive, so I'd side with the team getting a touchdown. I'd still expect the Niners to win the game, but the margin of error for Minnesota is pretty big at 1.9720/21.

It's difficult not to look at the over on the points line at 44.5. Neither defence inspires confidence right now, and both offences can get hot and have big playmakers. That suggests points at 2.01/1.

For a TD scorer interest, Raheem Mostert is the hot-hand in the San Francisco backfield. He's rushed for seven scores in his last six games, meaning he's the option for Same Game Multis as an anytime scorer at 6/5 and for first TD at 7/1 given that trend.

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