Vikings fans tend to have a fluid second-favorite team: whatever team is playing the Packers that week.
That allegiance was amplified Sunday when the horror of horrors was on the cusp of happening: the Packers were one game away from the Super Bowl, needing only a win over the team that dispatched the Vikings the previous week to make it there.
But Vikings fans’ rooting interest in the 49ers paid off handsomely Sunday when San Francisco trounced Green Bay 37-20. Aaron Rodgers has now lost the last three NFC title games in which he’s played since winning his first try after the 2010 season (2014, 2016 and 2019 seasons).
Beyond the schadenfreude that has come to define Vikings fandom, though, there was more to be gleaned from Sunday’s outcome. Namely: What did it teach us about the Vikings?
*On a basic level, it showed there’s a gap between best team in NFC North (Packers) and 49ers, and there’s a gap between second-best team in NFC North (Vikings) and Packers. It stands to reason that the Vikings are two levels removed from being a Super Bowl team.
Sure, there are advanced stats that tell us the Vikings were just as strong or better than the Packers this year and that Green Bay was either the worst or close to the worst 13-3 team of all-time.
But head-to-head means something. After 15 games, the Vikings and Packers were both 10-3 in games not against each other. But Green Bay swept the season series, including a decisive late victory at U.S. Bank Stadium. Give the edge to Green Bay, and at best acknowledge that both the Packers and Vikings were significantly behind the 49ers since both lost to San Francisco by three scores in lopsided playoff games.
*So what accounts for the gap between the Vikings and 49ers? Well, it’s not philosophy. The 49ers play pretty much how the Vikings would like to play — a strong running game setting up a passing game, all of it anchored by a very good defense. That has to be at least somewhat heartening for the Vikings.
But to me the most glaring difference is cornerback play. The 49ers had two of Pro Football Focus’ top six graded corners in the NFL this season, including No. 1 Richard Sherman. The first Vikings corner to show up on the list is Trae Waynes at No. 47, and you find former stalwart Xavier Rhodes all the way down at No. 108 (out of 114).
San Francisco’s suffocating coverage combined with its ability to rush the passer makes it very hard for teams to come back if they fall behind, as both the Vikings and Packers found out. Without even one shutdown corner, the Vikings were vulnerable this season.
*The 49ers don’t have a great offensive line, but it’s good — and becomes devastating in the run game when combined with wonderful tight end George Kittle and a scheme that keeps defenses guessing.
San Francisco has been able to run the ball in pretty much every game this season, including a combined 471 yards in two playoff wins over the Vikings and Packers. The Vikings were dedicated to the run this season, had improved run blocking and finished sixth in yards per game (133.3) during the regular season.
But in three glaring losses this season — at Chicago, vs. Green Bay and at San Francisco — the Vikings’ run game disappeared. If you can’t count on your strength when you need it most, you’re in trouble.
*Home field and a bye: San Francisco pulled out a handful of key wins this season, none bigger than a goal-line stop against Seattle in the regular-season finale, to secure the top seed at first-round bye.
There’s an element of fortune in the NFL owing to the magnitude of every game. The Vikings exploited that in 2017, getting a bye and the No. 2 seed.
The Vikings flat-out need to be sharper throughout the regular season to ease their path to the Super Bowl because, as Tennessee (and the Vikings to a lesser extent) showed this year, the magic usually runs out at some point if you have to play tough road games in the playoffs.
So step one is making sure they’re a step ahead of the Packers in 2020.