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5 Vikings-49ers Storylines: Cousins' Streak, Challenges On Tap for Vikings D

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings and 49ers — two teams who have turned things around after early struggles — are scheduled to meet for the 49th overall time (regular season or playoffs).

Kickoff is 3:25 p.m. (CT) Sunday.

The Vikings (5-5) first overcame a 1-3 start and now a 3-5 record after back-to-back heartbreakers to Dallas and at Baltimore and victories at the Los Angeles Chargers and against the Packers.

The 49ers opened 2-0 but then dropped four consecutive games. San Francisco (5-5) has rallied back to win three of four.

Nine of Minnesota's 10 games have been decided by one score. Six results have been determined by the final play of the game (includes one missed field goal, two made field goals by opponents in overtimes, two winning field goals as regulation expired and a walk-off touchdown in overtime).

San Francisco has had five games determined by one score this season, but the 49ers have been in cruise control in the past two weeks, a 31-10 win over the Rams and a 30-10 victory at Jacksonville.

Vikings uniform combination: White jerseys and white pants

Matchup to watch: Vikings defense vs. 49ers offense in red zone and goal-to-go

Minnesota ranks 25th in red zone defense, having allowed touchdowns on 67.9 percent of opponents' trips inside the Vikings 20-yard line. Foes have scored touchdowns on 19 of 28 possessions that have reached the 20.

The Vikings are tied for 29th in goal-to-go defense, having allowed touchdowns on 88.9 percent of the time (16 touchdowns allowed on 18 goal-to-go situations).

San Francisco has scored touchdowns on 21 of 27 opportunities in the red zone (a rate of 77.8 percent that leads the NFL) and on 15 of 18 goal-to-go situations (a rate of 83.3 percent that ranks second).

Here are five storylines of interest this week:

1. Thin up front

Multiple factors are affecting Minnesota's depth on the defensive line.

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Head Coach Mike Zimmer confirmed Wednesday morning that Tomlinson will be out Sunday. Fellow starter Michael Pierce was already on Injured Reserve.

Defensive end Everson Griffen is dealing with a personal matter on Wednesday. The Vikings released the following statement:

Vikings representatives and the team's mental health professionals have been on-site at Everson Griffen's home since early this morning and are cooperating with law enforcement. Our only concern at this time is the safety and well-being of Everson and his family. We will have further comment at the appropriate time.

Zimmer was asked about Griffen's status for Sunday.

"No, that's really not our concern right now," Zimmer said. "It's really about him."

The Vikings shortness of depth at defensive end last week was significant toward the decision of moving Sheldon Richardson from the interior to the edge for much of the game.

Armon Watts and James Lynch have been solid on the interior, but Minnesota will have to figure out if Richardson will go back to the interior, or if the defense best benefits from having him on the edge.

San Francisco's offense ranks seventh in yards per play (5.87), eighth in rushing yards per game (123.2) and fourth in passing yards per play (7.82).

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the 49ers.

2. Defending Deebo

Beyond being better than they have been in the red zone and against goal-to-go situations, Vikings defenders can do the team a big favor by limiting the damage caused by Deebo Samuel.

The receiver who was selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft led the 49ers in rushing last week with 79 yards on eight carries. He was targeted just twice in the passing game, which resulted in one 15-yard completion.

Samuel, however, ranks second in the NFL with 994 receiving yards this season and fourth among qualifying leaders with 18.07 yards per reception that is less than a half-yard under Cincinnati's Ja'Marr Chase.

"He's an electric player. He's a receiver in a kind of running back's body, so he's strong. He's physical. He can move," said D.J. Wonnum, Samuel's former college teammate. "We're going to prepare for it and we're going to get ready for it, but he's definitely a great player."

3. Can Cousins keep it rolling?

Vikings QB Kirk Cousins has posted some incredible numbers and positioned Minnesota at the end of games to win a couple more contests than it has.

Cousins is coming off his 25th career game with 300-plus yards (341) and three touchdown passes, which trails only Dan Marino's 26 in a quarterback's first 10 pro seasons.

According to NFL Research, Cousins' 21 touchdowns to two interceptions thrown ranks as the fifth-highest ratio through 10 games of a season.

Drew Brees (25:1 in 2018), Patrick Mahomes (27:2 in 2020), Russell Wilson (23:2 in 2019) and Tom Brady (22:2 in 2017) are the only quarterbacks with a higher ratio through 10 games.

He also has excelled in recent road contests, recording two or more touchdown passes and a passer rating of 100 or higher in seven consecutive road games. One more in a row will tie him with Carson Palmer (2004-05) for the most all-time.

Cousins' season-long passer rating of 106.3 ranks third in the NFL this season.

Sunday's counterpart Jimmy Garoppolo ranks 10th with an even 100.0.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.

4. The turnover battle

There are numerous stats in which San Francisco is in the top tier of teams on offense or defense, but turnover margin is not one of them.

The 49ers have nine takeaways against 14 giveaways this season for a differential of minus-5 that is tied for 27th in the NFL.

The Vikings have fared much better in terms of taking the football away from opponents (12 times) and protecting it (6 giveaways — tied for fewest in the NFL). The plus-six differential is tied with New England for fifth.

Minnesota nearly lost the football a couple of times but continued to stay aggressive throughout the game against Green Bay. The Vikings are back outdoors this week, but the weather is expected to be pleasant.

Losses of some players on defense might make it tougher for Minnesota to force turnovers, so protecting the football will continue to be important.

Consider the final turnover differential for Vikings teams since Zimmer's hire in 2014:

2014: minus-1 (7-9 team record, missed playoffs)

2015: plus-5 (11-5, made playoffs)

2016: plus-11 (8-8, missed playoffs)

2017: plus-5 (13-3, made playoffs)

2018: net-0 (8-7-1, missed playoffs)

2019: plus-11 (10-6, made playoffs)

2020: minus-1 (7-9, missed playoffs)

There's a strong correlation for the Vikings with having a positive turnover differential and a winning season that is followed by a trip to the postseason.

5. Can Vikings maintain control of destiny?

After absorbing gut punches, the Vikings have claimed a pair of emotional victories that have put the Vikings back in control of their playoff destiny.

Despite having matching 5-5 records as Week 12 approaches, the Vikings are in sixth place in the NFC (and would make the cut for the postseason). The 49ers are in eighth place in the NFC because of current tiebreakers. San Francisco would miss the playoffs by a spot.

Head-to-head is the best tiebreaker of all, so the team that wins this one will do itself a big favor.