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Vikings-49ers Could be … Fight of the Underdogs

EAGAN, Minn. – The Vikings don't mind the underdog role.

By nature of being the No. 6 seed, Minnesota is likely to enter each game with that status.

The Saints were landslide favorites during Wild Card weekend – heck, the NFL didn't even include the Vikings in its postseason hype video – but Minnesota silenced the doubters.

For a short time.

Media outlets once again are considering the Vikings an easy foe for the No. 1 seed 49ers in Saturday's Divisional round matchup. One California newspaper even printed the following headline after Minnesota's stunning upset of New Orleans: The 49ers Now Have a Gold-Paved Path to the Super Bowl.

Several Vikings were asked by Twin Cities media members this week about maintaining a chip on their shoulder heading into this weekend's game.

"It's about respect. You work hard week-in and week-out to get it," defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. "When people take it from you or decide not to give it to you, you start to feel a certain type of way, so you've got to go out and play your brand of football. Eventually people will have to give you the respect that you deserve."

Ifeadi Odenigbo, who rose to become a key part of Minnesota's defense this season, said the Vikings aren't blind to the critics.

"Yeah, right now we're starting to see the media saying that this is an easy walk for the 49ers, but we're used to this, we're used to people counting us out," Odenigbo said. "We've just got to play our ball, stay focused, and everything will take care of itself."

There's one thing worth noting, however: while analysts, critics and reporters may be automatically handing the "W" to the 49ers, San Francisco actually resonates quite well with the underdog mindset.

Prior to going 13-3 in 2019, the 49ers had not finished above .500 since 2013, when they went 12-4 and advanced to the NFC Championship. From 2015-18, they did not get over the six-win mark.

So while they earned a first-round bye, 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan assured media members via conference call Tuesday that his team isn't putting the cart before the horse.

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Shanahan was asked about challenges to coaching the "favorite" team entering a big game.

"I think there's huge challenges if you've got a team that really gets caught up in that stuff," Shanahan said. "I think it's been fairly easy for us this year just in terms of, it took us a long time to be favored. We were underdogs [in my first two seasons] – we went 6-10 and 4-12 – and we were battling. Even when we were 8-0 [this year], we still felt like, 'We have to prove a lot and earn everyone's respect.'

"Here we're sitting with the 1 seed, and we feel the exact same. I'm not sure on the 'favorites' and 'underdogs,' " he continued. "I feel like our guys have felt like underdogs all year, and that's something that fires them up. I'm sure that's something that fires Minnesota up in the exact same way. I think you've got two [coaches] that basically, we both look at ourselves as underdogs, and that's why I know it's going to be a big fight."

Shanahan reminded reporters that the final play of Week 17 between Seattle and San Francisco ultimately determined whether the 49ers would be the No. 5 seed or the No. 1.

"We've been clawing and going through every day and every game and every play just like it is a playoff game," Shanahan said. "I do feel, even though we're a young team, just the way this last month, month-and-a-half has gone, I do feel very battle-tested, and I feel like our team has played in some playoff-game atmospheres."

Saturday certainly promises to be a raucous atmosphere, but the Vikings proved last weekend that they're able to overcome a hostile environment.

And yes, they're on a short week. But Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on Monday brushed off any excuses.

"Hey, it's playoff time," Zimmer said. "It's big-boy football, now."

Odenigbo and Everson Griffen both pointed to Zimmer for setting the team's blue-collar mindset and helping players maintain the edge needed in pressure situations.

"I feel like we always have the chip. Coach Zimmer makes sure of that, because we have a good football team," Griffen said. "But the biggest thing for us to do is, have that chip but also study. Know this team better than we know our phone number."

Odenigbo said the approach "starts with Zim' " and trickles down through the roster.

"We've been a top-tier defense, a top-tier team, and everybody just wants to count the Vikings out," he said. "I don't know why people like coming at the Minnesota Vikings like that. We're excited to show what we're all about. We did a good job of that with the Saints, and we're ready to show that this Saturday."

And just like last week as they prepared for a road Wild Card game in New Orleans, the Vikings are relishing the underdog role – regardless of opponent.

"There's a lot of good teams in the playoffs," Danielle Hunter said. "No matter who we go against, we've just got to do our part and worry about us.

"We know what we're capable of, and a lot of people are going to be doubting us," he added. "So we've got to do our part."

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