Kyle Shanahan is a head coach known for his offensive mastery. The San Francisco 49ers’ biggest move of the past few years was the trade and massive extension for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The franchise itself is defined by great offense: Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens.
But this fine 49ers team is driven by defense. San Francisco’s unit is the best remaining in the playoffs, and it flattened the Minnesota Vikings in a divisional playoff game. San Francisco won 27-10. The 49ers will host the NFC championship game next week against the Seattle Seahawks or Green Bay Packers.
The record for fewest first downs in a playoff game since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger is six. The Vikings were stuck on six first downs until about 1:40 left in the game, when they picked up No. 7. At least they avoided that ignominy.
The Vikings didn’t even get to the 100-yard mark until the fourth quarter, and that was despite a 41-yard touchdown in the first quarter. There just was no space for any of their offensive stars to work. The 49ers defense was everywhere.
Vikings offense gets swallowed up
San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski are both candidates for the vacant Cleveland Browns head-coaching job, which is the only NFL job yet to be filled. It was obvious who had the better day Saturday.
On just about every Vikings snap, it seemed whoever had the ball was swarmed by multiple defenders. The idea of yards after catch didn’t exist. Dalvin Cook, who had a marvelous season at running back, was erased. By the time the 49ers took a 27-10 lead in the fourth quarter, Cook had 12 rushing yards on seven attempts, with 8 yards on four catches. When Cook took off for a 6-yard run with about 11 minutes left, it looked like Marcus Allen in the Super Bowl compared to all of his other rushing attempts. Then on the next two plays, Cook was dropped for no gain on a screen pass and then Kirk Cousins was sacked by DeForest Buckner.
A lot of heat will come on Cousins, because it always does, and he did not play well against an elite defense. That has been a big part of the story of his career. But there was not a whole lot he could do on Saturday. The 49ers were just that good.
Through three quarters, the Vikings had 90 yards and four first downs. And 41 yards came on one play, a third-down touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. You won’t see too many more dominating defensive performances in the playoffs.
The 49ers will face a future Hall of Fame quarterback next week with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. They’ll get either Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson. You have to imagine, with the way the defense looked against the Vikings, the Niners won’t be too concerned.
49ers defense leads team to NFC title game
Two turnovers killed any chance the Vikings had. Cousins threw an interception to Richard Sherman, and the 49ers turned that into a touchdown and a 24-10 lead. The game was teetering on blowout status then, and when Marcus Sherels flubbed a punt and the 49ers recovered at the 10-yard line, that was that. The 49ers kicked a field goal to take a 27-10 lead, and it would have taken days for the Vikings to score 27 points on the 49ers.
San Francisco slowly shifted to a run-heavy plan. It was clear the Vikings couldn’t move the ball, so there was no need to take any chances in the passing game. Garoppolo had a nice touchdown pass early in the game to Kendrick Bourne, and spent most of the rest of the game handing off. That was probably just fine by him.
It’s not like the 49ers haven’t also had great defensive players and teams. The 1980s 49ers, led by Ronnie Lott, had a fantastic defense that was overshadowed. Their most recent Super Bowl team got phenomenal linebacker play from NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. But the 49ers haven’t been defined by defense like this in a while. Their multiple draft investments on the defensive line and a well-placed gamble on Sherman have paid off big.
If defense wins championships, the 49ers might be having a parade soon.
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