The last time the Vikings were in the playoffs, their season ended with a thud.
On Jan. 11, 2020, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., the San Francisco 49ers dominated Minnesota in the divisional round. They sacked quarterback Kirk Cousins six times and held running back Dalvin Cook to a meager 18 yards on nine carries in a resounding 27-10 win.
On Sunday, the Vikings will return to the site of the beatdown. Memories from it linger.
“We have a bad taste in our mouth from that game,’’ said offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, Minnesota’s quarterbacks coach in 2020. “That was two years ago; we’ve got a lot of new pieces, a lot of similar pieces, but guys haven’t forgotten that.”
Some of the faces from that game have changed, but many of the key ones have remained the same. The 49ers are still coached by Kyle Shanahan and still have quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and defensive end Nick Bosa, who had two of their sacks. Bosa was fined $28,075 by the NFL shortly after that game for a penalized illegal block on tackle Brian O’Neill that the Vikings called a cheap shot.
The Vikings, still coached by Mike Zimmer, have a number of key players remaining on both sides of the ball. That includes Cousins, who threw for just 172 yards a week after rallying the Vikings with a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime in a 26-20 playoff upset at New Orleans.
“I remember San Francisco did a great job against us,” Cousins said. “They played a great game and they were the better team that day.”
After the playoff win over the Vikings, the 49ers walloped Green Bay 37-20 at home in the NFC Championship Game and looked primed to win Super Bowl LIV. They led Kansas City 20-10 midway through the fourth quarter before faltering and losing 31-20.
The hangover continued into 2020, when the 49ers went just 6-10. It didn’t help that Garoppolo missed 10 games due to injury.
The Vikings also fell back in 2020, going 7-9. Each team started this season 3-5 but enters Sunday’s game on a two-game winning streak.
“Two teams that are probably playing their better ball of the year right now,” Shanahan said.
With that in mind, there are playoff implications on the line Sunday. With seven teams making the postseason in the NFC, the Vikings are currently in the No. 6 spot and the 49ers are No. 7. The winner will have a tiebreaker if the teams are deadlocked at the conclusion of the NFL’s first 17-game season.
“It’s an important game,” Zimmer said. “I’m sure they’d say the same thing.”
Zimmer said the 49ers are similar to the team that handled the Vikings in the playoffs on offense and defense. One difference, he said, is a lot more “movement pre-snap” on offense, including sets with stars Deebo Samuel at wide receiver and George Kittle at tight end.
On defense, the biggest difference is DeMeco Ryans, who replaced Robert Saleh as defensive coordinator after he left at the end of last season to become head coach of the New York Jets. The 49ers remain stout on that side of the ball, ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense.
The Vikings, though, have shown continued improvement on offense. Cousins is playing as well as he has in his 10-year career. Second-year wide receiver Justin Jefferson is the most recent NFC Offensive Player of the Week winner after catching eight passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 34-31 win over the Packers. Cook continues to get better, as well, and hasn’t had many clunkers since the one in his last visit to Levi’s Stadium.
“We put that to bed, but (it’s) always (a challenge) having an opportunity to compete against a good defense, good players that they have over there,” Cook said of his return. “I definitely remember that game, that environment. I know it was a playoff game and different, but their fans get pretty rowdy.”
The Vikings will try to silence the fans with their seventh-ranked offense. But will they be able to stop the 49ers with their defense?
The Vikings rank just No. 28 in the NFL in total defense and on Sunday will be without their four preferred starters on the defensive line. Defensive end Everson Griffen is away from the team after a mental health issue on Wednesday, and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson has been ruled out after being placed Tuesday on the COVID-19 reserve list. They join end Danielle Hunter, lost for the season to a torn pectoral muscle on Oct. 31, and nose tackle Michael Pierce, on injured reserve with an elbow injury.
“It’s a big advantage for us,” Garoppolo told reporters on Wednesday about Minnesota’s depleted line. “I think, you know, the guys stepping in are no slouches, either. So, we’ve got to be ready for that.”
D.J. Wonnum has stepped in for Hunter, and Armon Watts for Pierce. Sheldon Richardson is expected to man one of the other two open spots. Regardless of who’s playing, the Vikings defense can expect a steady diet of the 49ers’ running game. In their last two games, a 34-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 15 and a 30-10 victory at Jacksonville on Nov. 21, San Francisco averaged 163.5 yards rushing.
Running back Elijah Mitchell had 91 yards against the Rams. Then, with Mitchell nursing a finger injury, the versatile Samuel carried eight times for 79 yards against the Jaguars.
“They run the ball really, really well,” Zimmer said.
When Garoppolo throws, Samuel is the primary target. Samuel, who sometimes lines up in the backfield, has 55 catches for 994 yards this season, second in the NFL.
“For the most part, he’s a receiver,” Zimmer said. “He’s terrific with the ball in his hands, he’s a strong runner, really good on the wide receiver screens, plays in the slot some.”
It will be Zimmer’s third road game against the 49ers since he came to Minnesota in 2014. The first one didn’t go well, either, with San Francisco rolling up 230 yards on the ground in a 20-3 win on Monday Night Football to open the 2015 season.
In the playoff game, Minnesota’s run defense wasn’t much better, giving up 186 yards. And the Vikings couldn’t get their ground game going, being held to a meager 21 yards rushing, tied for the lowest playoff game output in team history.
“It’s almost two full years removed, every team is going to be a little bit different,” O’Neill said. “What hasn’t changed is that they still have great talent across the board. They still have a great front seven.”
In the third quarter of the playoff game, Cousins threw a pass that was picked off by San Francisco’s Richard Sherman. On the return, Bosa hit O’Neill in the head area and was flagged for an illegal block. O’Neill was lost for the game with a concussion, and Zimmer and then-Minnesota guard Josh Kline both said afterward that it was a cheap shot.
O’Neill said he hasn’t had any contact with Bosa since the incident and has moved on.
“That’s water under the bridge now,” he said. “I got over that a long time ago. No, I’m good. I respect how he plays the game and hopefully it’s going to be a good battle (Sunday).”
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