Cousins had, early in San Francisco’s 27-10 win Saturday, found wide receiver Stefon Diggs for a deep touchdown strike that gave the impression that the Vikings could find success against the 49ers’ defense like they had the against New Orleans Saints a week ago. But Diggs only had one more catch all afternoon.
So there was Sherman lurking at the first down sticks in the third quarter when Cousins was looking for Adam Thielen on a comeback route. Sherman beat Thielen to Cousins’ throw and picked it off. The 49ers gutted the Minnesota defense with eight straight rushing plays to go 44 yards and punch in another score, providing the Niners a cushion that would lead to a comfortable threescore victory.
If there were any questions about the San Francisco defense headed into the playoffs, consider them answered now. The 49ers allowed 11 points per game through the first seven games of the season, then, as injuries piled up, allowed nearly 26 per game the final nine games.
But a well-rested, well-rehearsed group under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was more than equal to the task against the Vikings, who were eighth in the League in scoring during the regular season. The 49ers held Cook, who averaged 81.8 yards per game in the regular season, to just 18 yards on Saturday. Cousins finished with 172 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 21-of-29 passing; 16 of those completions came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and seven of those came from behind it. The Niners sacked Cousins six times, benefiting from the return to health of edge rusher Dee Ford and the continued excellence of Nick Bosa, the presumptive defensive rookie of the year.
San Francisco will face either Green Bay or Seattle next week back at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., to play for their first NFC championship since 2013 and the right to play in Super Bowl LIV. Either would be a rematch of a regular season meeting. Coach Kyle Shanahan’s group split its season series with the Seahawks, losing at home in overtime in Week 10, but winning on the road in Week 17 with a last-second goal-line stand. San Francisco dominated the Packers in Week 12, 37-8, a game in which Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times and threw for only 104 yards.
The 49ers will hope for another dose of that kind of defense after an encouraging performance Saturday. After Sherman’s interception, the Niners forced the Vikings offense to go three-and-out on their next possession. The Vikings forced the Niners to do the same, but Minnesota’s Marcus Sherels couldn’t handle the San Francisco punt and the 49ers recovered the muff before adding a field goal.
Any hope for a Minnesota comeback was lost with the score then 27-10 and only a quarter remaining to play. At every position, San Francisco — which earned the conference’s top seed with its win at Seattle — was stronger, faster and more energized. The same was true for the Niners’ offensive front. After quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw a second-quarter interception that led to a Minnesota field goal, San Francisco only passed the ball six more times. The 49ers instead leaned on a rushing attacked that racked up 186 yards. Tevin Coleman led the way with 105 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
But the lasting image was a 49ers defense that stifled Minnesota’s attack in every way, and figures to be a tough matchup for whichever opponent travels to face it next Sunday in the NFC championship game.
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