There will be plenty of subtle matchups to keep an eye on Saturday , but Cynthia Frelund of NFL.com has two that she will be watching closely.
Frelund wrote that Minnesota's X-factor is the Vikings ability to run the ball to the outside.
It's a little obvious to talk about Dalvin Cook as a big factor in general, but the connection to where he's rushing is more nuanced. A commitment to the run has driven a lot of success for the Vikings when Cook has been healthy.
Against the Saints on Wild Card Weekend, Cook's first-half average of 5.4 yards per carry outside the tackles created a framework for ball control and success. Cook is one of just four players with 1,000-plus rushing yards outside the tackles this season and leads the NFL with 11 rushing touchdowns outside the tackles.
The Vikings commitment to the outside-running game was evident against the Saints, as Cook routinely took tosses and handoffs that veered him to the outside.
View practice images from the Vikings practice on Jan. 8 at TCO Performance Center.
Frelund gives the Vikings a 14.1 percent chance to win the NFC, which ranks third among the four teams remaining. San Francisco has the highest odds of winning the conference at 38.9 percent.
Frelund noted the she'll be monitoring the health of 49ers edge rusher Dee Ford, who battled injuries in 2019 and played in just 11 games. Ford's last appearance came in a Week 14 win over the Saints.
Last week, I wrote about the decrease in the Niners' defensive pressure over the past few games. One key to making this pressure-front work is Dee Ford. With Ford on the field this season, the Niners have pressured opposing quarterbacks on 36.3 percent of dropbacks. But without him, that figure drops to 22.7 percent.
San Francisco's sack rate falls off a cliff, from 16.3 to 5.4, when Ford isn't on the field. Meanwhile, opposing quarterback figures significantly increase when No. 55's sidelined — the TD-to-INT ratio goes from 3:4 to 20:8, while the passer rating jumps from 73.8 to 86.4.
Ford ranked fourth on the 49ers with 6.5 sacks in 2019. He is in his first season with San Francisco after starting his career with Kansas City (2014-18).
Cook lone Viking selected to Sporting News All-Pro Team
Cook was one of three Vikings named to the Pro Bowl and has earned more praise for his strong 2019 season.
Cook played in 14 games in 2019, rushing 250 times for 1,135 yards (4.54 yards per carry) with 13 rushing touchdowns.
He helped the Vikings finish sixth in the league with 133.3 rushing yards per game in the regular season.
Cook put together a strong all-around effort in Minnesota's Wild Card playoff win as he tallied 130 total yards on 31 touches. He ran for 94 yards and two scores on 28 carries, and added three receptions for 36 yards.
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Cook was also the runner-up for Comeback Player of the Year. He played in just 11 games in 2018 while battling a hamstring injury, rushing for 615 yards and two touchdowns on 133 attempts.
San Francisco — Minnesota's opponent on Saturday — didn't have a player among the 26 picked by the Sporting News as All-Pros, but it did have four people win major awards.
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was voted as the Comeback Player of the Year.
Garoppolo played in just three games, including against the Vikings, in 2018 before suffering an ACL injury.
He bounced back to complete 329 of 476 passes (69.1 percent) for 3,978 yards with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions as he started all 16 games for the first time in his career. His passer rating of 102.0 was a career high and ranked eighth in the NFL.
49ers defensive end Nick Bosa was named as the Rookie of the Year, 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan was the Coach of the Year and 49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh was the Coordinator of the Year.