Three road teams won during the Wild Card Weekend. Only one of them plays on short rest in the Divisional Round. That team is the Minnesota Vikings, who not only play on short rest, but travel cross-country to San Francisco to play at 1:35 p.m. PT. The spot most definitely favors the host San Francisco 49ers, who spent last week watching and waiting for an opportunity to play in the postseason for the first time since 2013.
The 49ers are listed as 6.5-point favorites early in the week with a total of mostly 45.5 in the market. There are some -7s and some 45s out there. There is even a -6 at time of writing. It isn’t a big surprise. With low limits early in the week and a ton of money coming in closer to kickoff, the books can play around a little bit early in the week and use some of their information and exposure to their benefit. The biggest thing is that we didn’t see an early quant move driven by the stats.
The elephant in the room is the spot that I mentioned in the intro. The Vikings won on Sunday, had to play part of an overtime period, and then play on Saturday across the country. Is that baked into the number already? I would think so, but we’ll truly see in the middle of the week what the spot actually means in this instance. Early line moves are almost exclusively based on statistical calculations. The middle of the week typically brings more of the “handicapper” money into the mix. That’s where the spot really comes into play.
We can’t quantify what that spot means. Maybe somebody can. Maybe somebody has some sort of formula and historical data and whatnot to try and figure out what, exactly, it means to the line and what it could mean to the game flow. We have an idea and that’s really all that we have. Not to go off on a tangent, but one of my 2020 Betting Resolutions is to try and rely less on that grey area. In a one-game sample size, it could show up. It also may not. And if the Vikings lose the game and fail to cover, it may not have anything to do with the spot.
So, we look at the numbers. We look at what we can definitively see. The Vikings were pretty good with a top-10 offense during the season in yards per play, even though Adam Thielen missed six games and Dalvin Cook and Stefon Diggs battled their share of ailments. Their 5.8 yards per play came with the level of balance that every offensive coordinator professes to desire. They were 11th in yards per carry and sixth in adjusted net yards per pass attempt.
Kirk Cousins has had his share of haters throughout his career and the stats are damning in games against good teams. It hasn’t all been his fault, but Cousins was previously 0-10 against teams that had 10 or more wins going into last week. Quarterbacks typically lead upsets and Cousins hasn’t done enough of that. Even last week, how do we evaluate the offensive performance for the Vikings?
Sure, they had a lead most of the game, and did outgain the Saints 362-324. The Vikings also had only 4.9 yards per play to 6.0 for the Saints. The difference is that the Vikings ran 20 more plays. Minnesota was 10-of-18 on third down to 4-of-11 for the Saints. That was primarily the offensive difference in the game. That and four red zone trips to two. Do we give Cousins the credit for that with a pretty pedestrian set of numbers?
He’s sure to get a big challenge this week from a 49ers defense that was second in the NFL in Pressure% per Pro-Football-Reference and first in Hurry%. The Saints graded well in those two categories as well, but only got to Cousins twice for sacks and five times for QB hits. If the edge play for the 49ers is better, it will make things even tougher on Cousins and Dalvin Cook, who seemed to be missing a second gear in his return from injury with just 94 yards on 28 carries.
Then again, if San Francisco’s defense doesn’t benefit from the week off and looks like it did late in the season, the onus will be on Jimmy Garoppolo and the offense. Jimmy G had a 69% completion rate and 27 TD passes during the season, but he also threw 13 interceptions. He’s taken a total of two snaps in the postseason.
Overall, JG was fine. Over his last 10 games, he had a 20/7 TD/INT ratio and a 69.6% completion rate. There was a little bit of rust coming off of the torn ACL early in the year, but his numbers were mostly consistent. He benefitted from a tremendous running game with Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida. The three all wound up with over 100 carries and Mostert and Breida each ripped off over five yards per pop. Coleman was more of a between the tackles guy.
Therein lies the matchup for this game. The Vikings were 18th in yards per carry allowed with 4.3, but were tied with the second-fewest rushing touchdowns allowed. It’s not that 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan will be concerned if the game has to be in Garoppolo’s hands, but the running game is the safety net a first-time playoff starter needs. Can Garoppolo’s wide receivers win one-on-one matchups? If they can, can he get the ball to them?
It would also help to see the 49ers defense return to form. After forcing multiple turnovers in five of their first nine games, they haven’t done it since Week 11. The schedule certainly ramped up at that time with games against Green Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans, Atlanta, the Rams, and Seattle.
This should be a good game and is a bit of a challenging handicap as we’re being asked to take a 49ers team that hasn’t won by margin since before Thanksgiving against what should be a mostly healthy Vikings team.
Pick: San Francisco -6.5
Ultimately, the spot, the travel, the matchup, and the coaching are all factors too noteworthy to take the Vikings. Kyle Shanahan already prepped for the Saints once, so it stands to reason that he would focus a lot on the Vikings, while making tweaks to the game plan for New Orleans. As far as scheming and play design, Shanahan is one of the best.
Cousins still has questions to answer in big games. He wasn’t bad against the Saints and that was a big key in advancing. Let’s see how he does against a rested defense that was a better all-around unit throughout the season.