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Scoggins: Three keys to a Vikings victory over San Francisco

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook broke a tackle and ran just short of the end zone in the second quarter against New Orleans. Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. – Wait, did Kyle Shanahan really call his 49ers team an underdog? Apparently so.

Colleague Mark Craig dived into the underdog motivational ploy to advance today’s Vikings-49ers Division Round game.

The idea that nobody is giving the Vikings a shot to win was so last week. Mike Zimmer can’t to use that line again, even though the Vikings are facing the No. 1 seed in the NFC on the road as underdogs.

Pundits who picked the Vikings to get steamrolled against the New Orleans Saints are picking them to knock off the 49ers this afternoon.

For that to happen, here are my three keys that must happen for the Vikings to advance to the NFC Championship game.

1. O-line repeat last week. Better yet, perform even better. I wrote about the importance of line play earlier this week and it bears repeating. The 49ers have perhaps the best front seven in the NFL. Their defensive line is a force. The Vikings line (plus tight ends) will need their best effort of the season today. 

If the line can handle its business, Dalvin Cook has a chance to get in a rhythm, zone running plays open up, Kirk Cousins gets more comfortable in the pocket, play-action passes create deception and everything just seems to click.

We’ve seen what happen to the offense – and Cousins -- when the line gets overwhelmed. Exhibit A: Green Bay, Monday night.

2. Create turnovers. The Vikings forced two turnovers last week – a fumble and interception by Drew Brews. The guess here is that they’ll need at least two takeaways again today to win. The defense has been stellar in this area, producing 31 takeaways this season, fourth-most in the league. A lot of that stems from getting pressure – they finished fifth in sacks with 48.

Zimmer unveiled an ingenious wrinkle against the Saints by moving Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter inside in pass-rushing situations to take advantage of the weak link on the Saints offensive line.

If the defensive line can keep constant pressure on 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, maybe they can force him into mistakes. Garoppolo accounted for 18 turnovers this season (13 INTs, five fumbles).

 

3. Contain Kittle. Big challenge here. My colleague Andrew Krammer wrote about the task of trying to limit All-Pro tight end George Kittle this week. Kittle has caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns this season.

He is a sparkplug. He energizes his team and home stadium when he punishes tacklers with broken tackles as he rumbles for yards after catch. He can change momentum with one catch and run. It will be interesting to see if Zimmer has a new wrinkle or creative plan to try and minimize Kittle’s involvement.

Scoggins: Gophers offensive line play a key to beating Auburn

Tampa, Fla. -- Hello and Happy New Year from Raymond James Stadium on a beautiful day with blue skies and temperatures in the high 60s. Perfect football weather.

Gophers fans traveled in huge numbers for the Outback Bowl. I overheard an Auburn fan asking as Gophers fan outside my hotel this morning if "there's anyone left up there" because there are so many fans who made the trip here.

The Gophers had a large turnout for the 2015 Citrus Bowl and their return trip to Florida for this Jan. 1 bowl game is no different. The atmosphere for the game should be lively.

For pregame reading, here is colleague Megan Ryan's advance on the opportunity for the Gophers to make a final statement in a historic season.

And here is my column on the need for P.J. Fleck and his staff to coach aggressively and empty the playbook against a respected SEC team.

The matchup to watch is the Gophers offensive line vs. Auburn's heralded defensive line. This is a similar challenge to the Penn State game. The Gophers line won that matchup. Can they do the same today?

Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown is one of the best players in college football and a projected Top 10 pick in the NFL draft. He was named the SEC Player of the Year and finalist for several major national awards, including the Outland Trophy and Nagurski Award.

Brown registered 12.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles this season. He is a force in the interior, but he's not a one-man show. There's also defensive end Marlon Davidson, a second-team All-American after posting 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He was named SEC defensive lineman of the week four times.

This is a tall order for the Gophers offensive line (including tight ends) in terms of creating lanes for the running backs and giving Tanner Morgan time in the pocket. Star receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman pose problems for any defense, but Morgan needs time in order to take advantage of those matchups.

We will have full coverage of the game online and in print. Thanks for reading the Star Tribune.