Bailey May Give Vikes Edge Saturday
Enjoy a Vikings notes column in advance of Saturday’s divisional playoff game with the 49ers.
The winner moves on to the NFC championship game, and the margin of victory Saturday could be only a few points. Perhaps a field goal decides the outcome at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, and the Vikings may have an edge because their Dan Bailey has made 21 consecutive three-pointers.
The 49ers’ Robbie Gould? In the last 13 games he has only made 23 of 31 field goal attempts, a 74.2 percentage. That’s a big drop from 2018 when the 37-year-old Gould converted 33 of 34 field goal attempts.
Bailey was 27 of 29 attempts (93.1 percent) during the regular season, the fourth time in his career he has been over 90 percent. In Minnesota’s opening playoff win last Sunday in New Orleans Bailey made two field goals to help the Vikings to a 26-20 overtime win over the favored Saints.
Vikings center Brett Jones is expecting a close game. “Oh, for sure,” he said. “It’s amazing the amount of parity in the league this year, and it’s going to be like that I am sure this weekend. So we gotta be ready to execute, and all the little details matter.”
Former Viking Bob Lurtsema, who remains a close observer of the team, thinks Minnesota may win 24-21. In a critical play, either the Vikings or 49ers may take advantage of the other. “It’s (the outcome) going to come down to one mistake,” he told Sports Headliners.
The last 27 NFL postseason games, dating back to the 2017 Super Bowl, have been decided by an average of 8.1 points. Four of the league’s last seven postseason games have been decided in overtime. Eight of the past 14 playoff games (excluding neutral site Super Bowls) have been won by road teams.
The 49ers had a bye last weekend, providing more time to prepare for Saturday’s game than the Vikings. The 49ers, 13-3 during the regular season, led the NFC in points per game at 29.9. They were also No. 1 in total defense, giving up 281.8 yards per game. “That is a good football team, no doubt about it,” said Lurtsema about the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
The Vikings, 10-6 in the regular season and coming off the success of last Sunday, should approach the game with confidence, particularly defensively. Head coach Mike Zimmer and his staff will no doubt have a surprise, or two, for the 49ers defensively. They did against the Saints, lining up defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter in the middle of the line.
Lurtsema wouldn’t be surprised to see more of that scheme Saturday from the No. 6 seed Vikings. “They (the defensive ends) get off the ball better (playing inside),” he said.
Zimmer’s surprise schemes and the talent of his defensive personnel could even help the Vikings score points. Since the team’s bye week in November, the defense has 17 takeaways, tops in the NFL. During that period of time, Minnesota also has a league-leading nine opponent fumble recoveries and eight interceptions (tied for most with the Packers).
An effective performance by the defense seems probable, but what about the Minnesota offense? That unit will need a major contribution again from running back Dalvin Cook who rushed for 94 yards against the Saints and helped balance the offense. His running takes pressure off quarterback Kirk Cousins, and at times even the offensive line because Cook is so good he can make gains with minimal openings.
Cook ran to the right with success against the Saints, with right tackle Brian O’Neill impressing with his blocking. Jones said the second-year lineman has a lot going for him including his inquisitiveness. “He asks good questions during the week and it shows on Sundays. He’s playing really good.”
Cousins had enough pass protection from his sometimes inconsistent offensive line to complete 19 of 31 passes including one touchdown throw against the Saints. He was sacked just twice for 10 yards.
“I have a lot of confidence in Brian, (and) confidence in the entire offensive line,” Cousins said. “They’ve worked very hard and done a great job all year. …They’re well coached, and they’re a big reason why we’re still playing football here in mid-January.”
The Vikings won their opening playoff game on a touchdown catch by 6-foot-6, 265-pound Kyle Rudolph in the end zone. “I wouldn’t leave any of us (tight ends) on an island like that one-on-one,” said Irv Smith, who is Rudolph’s backup. “You know, we’re bigger guys, especially Rudy with how big he is and his ball skills. It just shows the talent that he has, and the talent that this tight end group has.”
Rudolph’s performance was a bit of redemption for the 30-year-old veteran who had an uncertain future with the team last spring. Because of salary cap concerns, it was believed the Vikings and Rudolph would likely part ways, with Rudolph perhaps landing with quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots. Instead, the Vikings and Rudolph agreed on a reported four-year $36 million extension.
Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski after being asked if he is surprised with the career consistency of Rudolph: “I’m not surprised. I think he’s one of our hardest working players. It’s hard to beat him into the building in the morning. He’s here early and he just takes his craft very seriously.”
The prediction here is Viking star wide receivers Stefon Diggs (illness) and Adam Thielen (ankle injury) will play Saturday, even if somewhat limited in how they can perform.
Santa Clara, the home of the San Francisco 49ers stadium, is located more than an hour drive from the San Francisco airport. The San Jose airport is about 10 minutes from Santa Clara.