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The Skinny Post: Vikings Understand Rare Opportunity Awaits in San Francisco

EAGAN, Minn. — Linval Joseph doesn't talk much, but teammates listen when he does.

The Vikings mammoth defensive tackle is the only player on Minnesota's defense with a Super Bowl ring, which he earned with the Giants during the 2011 season.

With the Vikings readying for another playoff test on the road, Joseph delivered a message to his teammates this week ahead of Saturday's Divisional round game against the 49ers.

"Something Linval said is that he's been in the NFL for 10 years, and there's only four years he's gotten a chance at the playoffs," said Vikings right tackle Brian O'Neill. "You have to understand the importance of it, but at the same time, it will be a lot more fun if we win on Saturday.

"We're trying not to have fun right now. We have a job to do and take care of business," O'Neill added. "We want to give ourselves the best chance to win because winning is fun. I like winning, so I want to do that."

Added defensive end Danielle Hunter: "This opportunity doesn't come often. You have some people that's been in the league X amount of years and have never made the playoffs. It's an experience that we know we have to be focused and know this opportunity doesn't come around often."

Minnesota put the rest of the playoff world on notice with its upset of New Orleans in the Wild Card round.

Now the stakes are even higher for the Vikings, who will travel to the West Coast to square off against the top-seeded 49ers. San Francisco went 13-3, won the NFC West and earned a first-round bye in 2019.

The veterans on the Vikings know it will take a similar — if not better — effort to get a win Saturday. And they also know they only have one chance to get it done.

"I feel like we're jelling at the right time, but we have to carry it over," said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen. "Can we do it again this week? Can we play better? I think that's what it's going to take — for us to play better in order to win this game. We have to go to Levi's Stadium and play better than we did last week."

Kickoff between the Vikings and 49ers is at 3:35 p.m. (CT) Saturday. NBC will broadcast the action from Santa Clara, California, to a national audience.

Here are three areas to watch in Saturday's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:

Key in on Kittle | By @Eric_L_Smith

The Vikings will go up against one of the best players at his position across the league on Satuday.

49ers tight end George Kittle — a First-Team All-Pro in 2019 — is one of Jimmy Garoppolo's top targets. Kittle had 85 catches for 1,053 yards and five scores this season.

According to Sharp Football Stats, Garoppolo targeted Kittle 107 times in 2019, which was the highest number of target attempts for a tight end. The duo connected on 79 percent of those targets, with 53 of Kittle's 85 catches going for a first down. Garoppolo's passer rating when looking for Kittle was 119.4.

Plus, Kittle is one of the NFL's top blocking tight ends.

"He's an awesome player. He's really active in everything," said Vikings safety Harrison Smith. "Run game — a great blocker and will block any type of player from a big guy on down.

"And in the pass game, not only does he run really good routes and is fast and athletic, but once he gets the ball, he has a great run-after-the-catch ability," Smith added. "He's tough."

Added Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer: "He's obviously a great pass catcher, but his run after catch is really good. He catches screens, he catches option routes, and he's a really good blocker, too. And they'll use him on rockets and things like that. He does definitely affect the game, the way that it goes, and we'll have to do a good job on him."

Thanks to the play of All-Pro Eric Kendricks, who is often tasked with covering tight ends, the Vikings defense allowed just one receiving touchdown to a tight end in 2019.

View practice images from the Vikings practice on Jan. 9 at TCO Performance Center.

Shutting down Jimmy G. | By @LindseyMNSports

Garoppolo will start his first career playoff game when he faces the Vikings in Saturday's Divisional round matchup.

And while it may be his first postseason appearance, the 28-year-old likely isn't someone who will get rattled by the big stage and bright lights. He helped lead San Francisco to some significant wins during the regular season and will look to do the same against Minnesota.

He's talented, to be sure. Garoppolo finished the 2019 campaign 329-of-476 passing for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions with a passer rating of 102. His picks were tied with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Sam Darnold for eighth-most in the league.

Similar to Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Garoppolo is known for getting his passes off pretty quickly; his 2.65-second average was eighth-fastest among starting quarterbacks this season.

Griffen said this week that it's important to be aware of – but not discouraged by – the stats.

"You just can't get desperate, can't get frustrated; you just have to do your job," Griffen said. "When he holds the ball that one time, you have to be locked in and be able to beat your guy to get the sack. We faced the same problems last week with Drew Brees."

Opposing defenses were able to sack Garoppolo 36 times in 2019, which tied for 14th-most in the NFL. For reference, Vikings QB Kirk Cousins was sacked 28 times.

Defensive tackle Shamar Stephen concurred with Griffen.

"You have to be able to get after it but don't get frustrated if you don't get a sack," he said of Garoppolo. "Make him hold the ball and give guys time to get there."

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"Vikings Postgame" Live After Saturday's Game

Visit vikings.com, the Vikings App, Vikings Now (Connected TV app), or the team's Facebook, Twitter or YouTube pages to watch "Vikings Postgame" after Saturday's game against the 49ers.

A path on the perimeter? | By @pcraigers

The path to the NFC Championship could be influenced by activity on the perimeter.

According to Next Gen Stats, 21 of Dalvin Cook's 28 rush attempts were outside the tackles and led to 65 of his 94 yards on the ground. It was the Vikings NFL-leading third game (regular season and playoffs) with at least 20 rushes outside the tackles this season.

"I like [plays to the outside] a lot because it gives me a clean view, and it gets the ball in my hands real fast to make decisions," Cook said this week. "I trust my eyes to make good decisions, and when I get the ball in my hand, I think the faster things can happen. I definitely like it."

Two of the three teams that defeated San Francisco this season (Seattle in Week 10; Baltimore in Week 13) did so with runs to the outside, but their rush totals also were significantly impacted by the mobility of quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.

According to Next Gen Stats, Jackson totaled 90 of his 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries outside the tackles.

Next Gen Stats charted 18 runs outside the tackles for 83 yards by Seattle running back Chris Carson (14 for 47) and Wilson (four for 36).

The Vikings also found success against the Saints on a swing pass to Cook when Garrett Bradbury got to the next level to provide an important lead block on a gain of 19.

"He made a good block, got in front of the dude. That's all I needed to get around the guy. We have an athletic center that can do things like that; we've got guys up front that can get out and run and do things like that. That gives us a chance to call plays like that. Garrett got out and made a good block, and it was an explosive play for us."

See photos of the Vikings equipment staff readying the team's uniforms for Saturday's Divisional Round matchup with the 49ers.

Substantial Stats

— The 49ers averaged 29.9 points scored per game in the regular season, which ranked second in the NFL. The Vikings 25.4 points per game ranked eighth in the league. The most combined points ever scored between the two teams was 83, when Minnesota defeated San Francisco 42-41 in 1965.

— The Vikings defense tied for the third-fewest rushing touchdowns in the NFL in 2019, giving up just eight during the regular season. Minnesota allowed a rushing score by Saints RB Alvin Kamara in Sunday's Wild Card game. San Francisco led the NFL with 23 rushing touchdowns in 2019.

— Since Minnesota's Week 12 bye, the Vikings have secured 17 takeaways, six more than the next-closest team (11 by Buffalo and Tampa Bay). The Vikings have a league-leading nine opponent fumble recoveries and eight interceptions (tied with Green Bay) in that span.

— The playoff matchup will mark the 48th game (excluding preseason) between the teams. Minnesota is 22-19-1 against the 49ers in the regular season but just 1-4 in postseason contests, all of which have been in the Divisional round of the playoffs. The Vikings under Head Coach Mike Zimmer are 1-1 against the 49ers, most recently defeating them 24-16 in the 2018 season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Quotable

"I think our team tends to respond to doubt, to having that chip on our shoulder. That's the mentality we have to have every week for the next three weeks. It's no different this week. We're going on the road to play the No. 1 seed in the NFC. I'm sure it's going to be us believing that we can win, and that's the way we like it."

— Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph

Sixth-seeded surprises

The Vikings, the NFC's No. 6 seed, are still playing. The same goes for the sixth-seeded Titans in the AFC, as Tennessee plays at Baltimore on Saturday night.

The last time both No. 6 seeds reached their respective conference championship games was 2010, when Green Bay and the New York Jets did it.

The Jets lost in that AFC title game, while the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl — one of just two No. 6 seeds to do so since the NFL expanded its playoff format in 1990.

The Vikings are looking to be the third team on that list.

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