By Bruce Macgowan
Special to The Examiner
Which 49ers team will show this Sunday against the Vikings? The team that bashed the Rams and Jaguars in successive weeks? Or the woeful team that was eviscerated by the Cardinals three weeks ago?
With the Vikings (5-5) coming into Santa Clara Sunday, it’s hard to say.
What has driven the Niners these last two weeks has been the play of a soul-crushing running game that has chewed up yardage while wearing down the opponent’s defense.
In last week’s crushing win at lowly Jacksonville, the Niners took almost 13 minutes and 20 plays, the longest scoring march in the NFL this season, on their opening drive.
The result was a Jacksonville defense that barely had a chance to catch its breath and didn’t get an opportunity for much relief when the Jaguars’ rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence was unable to move the ball.
Even though they’re home, the 49ers will face a much tougher team when the Minnesota Vikings visit Santa Clara. Like the 49ers, the Vikings have won two straight, including this past Sunday’s stirring last second victory over rival Green Bay. And like the 49ers, Minnesota needs to maintain some momentum if they hope to squeeze into the playoffs, probably as a wild card team.
Veteran play-caller Kirk Cousins was brilliant in the win over Green Bay, throwing for 341 yards with three TD strikes to finish with a 128.4 quarterback rating.
Niners’ quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is on a similar track, as the Niners “grind-it-out” running game gave him time to be selective and not have to throw so many passes. Yet Jimmy G still managed to fire 5 touchdown strikes the last two games.
Vikings’ coach Mike Zimmer is very much like the Niners’ Mike Shanahan. Both are extremely creative and sometimes unpredictable as to what they will call. Both have to feel pretty good about the recent play of their quarterbacks.
Despite two important wins the last two weeks, Cousins has been a bit hard on himself. Zimmer says he doesn’t think Cousins should worry too much.
“I want him to keep doing it like he’s been doing it. He can’t second-guess himself. If he throws an interception, that’s life. You keep going for the jugular,” said Zimmer, after Sunday’s win over the Packers in Minneapolis.
If Cousins does what he’s been doing recently, fans might see a high-scoring, fun-filled afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.
Meanwhile, in addition to their efficient and sometimes explosive offense, keep an on four key players when the 49ers’ defense takes the field. Sack specialist Nick Bosa and young veteran Arden Key, a former Raider, combined for five sacks against the Jaguars. Zimmer, no doubt, is spending a lot of time this week in the film room trying to figure out how to put the clamps on them.
On the Niners’ side, veteran defensive back Jimmy Ward, 31, had two interceptions including a pick-six against the Rams and helped keep Jacksonville from getting any big chunks of yardage last week. He’ll be encouraging his younger teammates, as usual.
Of course, Niners linebacker Fred Warner sets a good example as he is always roaming everywhere on the field and seems to be around the football nearly all the time. Check out the stats after games and you’ll usually see Warner’s name at or near the top of the list when it comes to tackles and assists.
Warner may not be a big name with the national fans or media, but he’s as good a linebacker as there is in the NFL and he’s still young and durable.
Warner, who was truly disgusted and shocked by the terrible beating the Niners took at the hands of the Cardinals, says he’s thrilled by how his team has turned things around the last two games.
“These past 14 days … I don’t want to say ‘changed our team’ but we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve just got to keep it going. Minnesota’s going to be a good challenge for us,” said Warner.
Warner may, like most football players, use clichés to answer questions from reporters but what he said is also straightforward and to the point.
If the 49ers want to push themselves back into the postseason picture, they’re going to have to keep winning. Sunday’s game against the Vikings should be an intense battle with plenty of excitement for the fans and perhaps plenty of points on the board.
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.