There was a point about three weeks ago, after the 49ers were pummeled by the Colt McCoy-led Arizona Cardinals — who were missing Kyler Murray, Deandre Hopkins and J.J. Watt — when it seemed like they were a team destined to fail their own expectations.
At 3-5, a loss to the Los Angeles Rams would have all but sunk their playoff hopes. Kyle Shanahan indicated Trey Lance wouldn’t start until the team was eliminated from the playoffs, but that his time could come “soon.” That shift almost seemed imminent.
Three weeks later, with a 34-26 win over the Vikings, the 49ers have now won three-straight games, are 6-5, and are increasingly likely to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times now gives them a 72 percent chance to make the playoffs.
It was fairly reminiscent of the last time these two teams met, in the NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Jimmy Garoppolo threw a first-half interception… after throwing a pair of near interceptions.
Then, the running game took over, and Garoppolo executed key throws that he was asked to make. Just as it has three out of the last four weeks, as that mixed rushing attack threw the defense off, it opened up the middle of the field, which Garoppolo attacks effectively.
Elijah Mitchell, Deebo Samuel and a few others ran riot over the Minnesota defense, combining for 39 carries, 208 yards and three touchdowns. They were one rush shy of three-straight games with 40 carries.
Samuel, who finally crossed the 1,000-yard receiving threshold with his only catch of the day, had six carries for 66 yards and two touchdown runs. Mitchell took 27 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown of his own.
Both teams lost linebackers, but the Vikings’ loss of Anthony Barr loomed larger as the 49ers running game continued to churn out yards and seconds in the waning minutes.
Despite a host of throws which were interceptable, Garoppolo once again executed when it mattered.
At the end of the second half, he hit Brandon Aiyuk on a key, deep completion over the middle to get the 49ers into the red zone, setting up a nice touchdown throw to Jauan Jennings two plays later with less than 20 seconds on the clock. He nearly found Jennings later for a lobbed fade for another touchdown, but Jennings’ knee caught sideline instead of end zone.
In the fourth quarter, with more than nine minutes remaining, Garoppolo made perhaps the most consequential throw of the day.
The defense had just held Minnesota to a turnover-on-downs inside the five-yard line, and with pressure in his face, he found a tightly-covered Trent Sherfield for a third-down conversion. It was Sherfield’s first catch since a nine-yard reception against the Colts in Week 7, and just his fifth of the season.
Two plays later, Garoppolo found Kyle Juszczyk for a 26-yard completion. From that point on, Mitchell — and to a lesser extent — Jeff Wilson Jr. did the literal legwork, grinding out first downs to force the Vikings to burn their timeouts, and setting up what should have been a game-icing field goal attempt, which Robbie Gould missed from 49 yards.
Despite the missed kick, some impressive coverage shut down Minnesota to secure the win. The defense, by the way, was commendable. Nick Bosa had his 11th sack in 11 games, K’Waun Williams was lights out — and had a key breakup on the Vikings’ final drive — and the group was responsible for just 20 points.
And as incredible the performances of Samuel and Mitchell were, this is a team which has a pretty simple recipe to win. When the 49ers get more turnovers than they lose, they are undefeated. On Sunday, they had one turnover to the Vikings’ two. They are now 4-0 this season with a positive turnover differential.
San Francisco won this game with its turnovers, and the running game helped seal it. Azeez Al-Shaair’s interception of Cousins on the Vikings’ first drive of the second half gave them a 14-point lead.
Kevin Givens’ strip fumble of Dalvin Cook — who left the game with a shoulder injury suffered on that tackle — gave San Francisco the eight-point margin it needed.
There was even another Peanut Tillman punch from Josh Norman which nearly caused a third turnover.
To Minnesota’s credit, the 49ers were absolutely given a scare down the stretch.
After the heinous interception from Cousins, the Vikings responded, taking less than three minutes to score a touchdown on a five-play drive highlighted by Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson.
A 49ers field goal on the ensuing drive was met with a ridiculous, 99-yard kickoff return touchdown from Vikings reserve running back Kene Nwangwu. The Vikings’ two-point conversion failed miserably, on a scud throw from Cousins to Jefferson.
But the ability to convert key third downs and burn the clock by running the ball allowed San Francisco to gain an all-important tiebreaker over Minnesota and move into the sixth playoff spot.
The negatives from this game were the injuries: Trey Sermon was ruled out early with an ankle injury. Fred Warner had a hamstring injury. Dre Greenlaw seemed to re-aggravate the groin injury which has kept him out since Week 1. Deebo Samuel, perhaps most concerningly of all, sustained a groin injury. None of those players returned.