SANTA CLARA — If you fell asleep and missed the Minnesota Vikings’ divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, you would already know how it happened without watching the replay.
Fans who watched the Vikings on a weekly basis could tell you the formula for beating them without hesitation: Dalvin Cook is slowed down, Kirk Cousins gets interior pressure, there’s one massive costly mistake by the offense, Xavier Rhodes is attacked and the defense struggles to stop the opposing team’s running game.
The 49ers checked literally every box on Saturday afternoon.
From the outset of the game it was clear that the Vikings’ defense that shut down Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints’ offense last week did not make the trip to the Bay Area. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo saw very little pressure as he hit throws of 22, 11 and 11 to set up the 49ers at the goal line. And then Kendrick Bourne smoked Rhodes for an opening touchdown.
But the Vikings responded like a team that was ready to prove that questions about their resiliency or ability to go toe-to-toe with good teams were misguided. Kirk Cousins flung a pass down the sideline to Stefon Diggs, who shredded his defended for and walked backwards into the endzone for a 41-yard score to knot the game at seven.
And that was it for the Vikings’ offense for the day. After that the 49ers completely mauled the Minnesota offensive line, shut down Cook, hit Cousins, forced a key turnover and gave the Vikings zero point zero percent chance of a comeback once they got down.
The door was open on numerous occasions for the Vikings to stick around. Garoppolo threw an interception late in the second quarter when Eric Kendricks made an all-pro play jumping in front of a receiver but Cousins was sacked on third-and-long and the Vikings were forced to kick a field goal.
San Francisco marched for a field goal coming out of the half and never had to throw the ball again. On a miscommunication between Cousins and Adam Thielen on third-and-long, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman picked off a pass, giving his team a shot to put the game on ice.
However, a penalty pushed the 49ers back to the 44. At that point the defense had a shot to keep their team in the game. Instead San Francisco — the much more healthy and rested of the two teams — ran the ball down the Vikings’ throats just as Minnesota had done to Dallas earlier this year. They scored to go up 24-10 on eight straight rushes.
If there was any chance of the Vikings coming back from down two touchdowns it was going to have to be on the shoulders of Cousins. But that simply isn’t the Vikings’ game. They weren’t playing the Denver Broncos at home. The 49ers are a completely different animal. They pressured Cousins again on the following drive and the Vikings were forced to punt.
By the end of the third quarter, Cousins 12 completions for 87 yards. Dalvin Cook had seven carries for 12 yards.
Marcus Sherels fumbled a punt, the 49ers knocked in a field goal and that was that.
There’s a pretty simple reason the Vikings didn’t beat any winning teams on the road this year: Because there was always a clear-cut way to beat them. Without a running game, the Vikings can’t get in favorable down-and-distance situations. And then they are forced to pass block without the benefit of play-action. And then Cousins is pressured and can’t escape to make plays. And then the defense gets worn down and has their weaknesses exploited.
The 49ers knew how to beat the Vikings and did.
There was no bad luck to this one. No bad breaks for Vikings fans to reminisce about years from now. Not even the lore or mythology of a missed field goal or an across-the-body throw or 12 men in the huddle. Just a better team — that got the benefit of rest because they beat good teams in the regular season — beating a group with too many weaknesses and too difficult of a road for a magical playoff run.