Mike Zimmer had no trouble selling his players on the fact nobody thought the Vikings could win their first-round playoff game against the Saints because that was the truth. Maybe the most diehard fans of the purple believed victory was possible but that was a small group.
The Vikings coach did a brilliant job of driving home the us against the world message, he devised a brilliant defensive game plan to stop Drew Brees and a high-powered offense and the Vikings went into the game with basically no pressure on them. Minnesota exited with a 26-20 overtime victory and a second-round meeting with the host San Francisco 49ers that will take place on Saturday afternoon.
The Friday morning paper showed the Vikings to be 7-point underdogs against the Niners, but it would be silly to suggest there is no pressure on the Vikings this time. The Saints looked like the best team in the NFC entering the playoffs — yes, the 49ers are the No. 1 seed — and yet the Vikings went into their building and beat them. A few things had to go right for that to happen but the victory was no fluke.
The Vikings were the better team.
A common theme throughout the course of this season was the fact that there was no clear cut great team in the NFC. San Francisco and New Orleans appeared to be the best teams for the longest periods but Seattle snuck into that mix at one point and then fell out. The Packers finished 13-3, beating the Vikings twice in the process, but never really scared anyone.
This is a long way of saying that even with a bit more pressure on them this time the Vikings’ victory at New Orleans gives one reason to believe they can win Saturday in Levi’s Stadium, a far less intimidating environment than the Superdome. In fact, there are plenty of pundits picking the Vikings to win.
The challenges facing the Vikings are obvious. George Kittle might be the best tight end in the NFL and the 49ers defense was one of the best in the league this season when healthy. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins figures to face one of his biggest challenges against a defense that gave up only 169.2 yards passing per game this season, the fewest in the NFL in 10 years.
If wide receiver Adam Thielen is slowed after needing stitches in his left ankle following an incident in practice this week that could be a major problem. Running back Dalvin Cook almost certainly will have to have a huge day if the Vikings are to pull off a second consecutive upset.
You can’t help but wonder what Zimmer has cooked up to try to throw 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Niners coach Kyle Shanahan off their game. Garoppolo is no Brees and the Saints quarterback looked completely flustered last Sunday. What makes it a bit more tricky is the Vikings are operating on a short week and the 49ers had a bye in the first round.
The Vikings Ventline show (aka the Ventline Coffee Club) I host each morning on SKOR North featured a few long-time fans who either had bet against the team or were convincing themselves that a loss on Saturday was inevitable because that’s their defense against being disappointed by another playoff defeat.
This is a franchise that hasn’t won two playoff games in the same season since the 1987 run that began with an upset of New Orleans and San Francisco before ending in a heartbreaking defeat in Washington in the NFC title game. There have been 16 postseason appearances since then, including four that ended with losses in the NFC championship game.
So is this the year the Vikings finally put together back-to-back playoff victories and end that 33-year drought? The answer from this corner is yes. The final on Saturday: Vikings 27, San Francisco 21. Beyond that, I make no promises. At least for now.