The Minnesota Vikings will travel to face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in a pivotal matchup in the NFC playoff picture.
A win can give the Vikings a leg up on the log-jam for the seventh seed but a loss will make a trip to the playoffs more difficult. While there are few predictable elements about this team, here are five things you can count on when Minnesota heads to Santa Clara.
1. More aggressive shots from Kirk Cousins
Over the past couple of weeks, Mike Zimmer has become football's version of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Maybe it was the ghosts of Vikings (coaches) past paying him a visit but whatever happened, Zimmer has embraced aggressive football.
What used to be a philosophy based on running the ball and limiting turnovers has morphed into an aggressive attempt to get Justin Jefferson the ball. While Kirk Cousins showed pause over the new approach, Zimmer has encouraged him to "keep going for the jugular" and that should continue against the 49ers.
2. Another big game for Justin Jefferson
One of the main beneficiaries of Zimmer's awakening has been Jefferson, who is being utilized like a superstar receiver. Jefferson has 17 catches for 312 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games but more importantly, he has 21 targets.
That usage should continue on Sunday when Jefferson goes up against San Francisco's Josh Norman. According to Pro Football Focus, Norman has allowed a 125.0 passer rating, which is the fifth-highest in the NFL.
With Emmanuel Mosley allowing under one yard per coverage snap, the Vikings would be wise to keep throwing it to Jefferson and give him another big game.
3. The Vikings getting out to a lead
What's incredible about the Vikings' season is that they've dominated opponents early only to have games come down to the final possession. Minnesota has held the lead in all 10 games this season and in seven of those games, they've held a lead of 10 or more points.
We can't predict how the Vikings will let their opponent back into the game, but we can guess that Sunday's game will produce another early lead.
With the Vikings continuing to be aggressive, it could put San Francisco in an early hole and give fans another false sense of security heading late into the game.
4. San Francisco will move the ball on the ground
Getting off to a fast start will be necessary this week as the Vikings face a 49ers offense that loves to run the ball. San Francisco ranks eighth in the NFL at 123.2 rushing yards per game but is averaging 170.5 yards over their past two games.
A big reason for the spike has been their creative approach in the backfield. While Elijah Mitchell is questionable with a finger injury, Jeffrey Wilson and Trey Sermon have split carries. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel has even made a cameo, collecting 115 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in wins over Arizona and Jacksonville.
With Dalvin Tomlinson testing positive for COVID and Everson Griffen placed on the reserve/non-football illness list, all four members of the starting defensive line will be unavailable for this game. This creates a challenge that the Vikings may not be able to solve.
5. The Vikings getting a leg up on the NFC playoff race
The battle for the final seed in the NFC has all the tenacity of a pillow fight. With the New Orleans Saints losing on Thursday night, the Vikings are tied with the 49ers with a slew of teams that look like they want nothing to do with the playoffs.
This game should come down to which team has the more aggressive approach. If the Vikings come out and force the issue, San Francisco will be forced to turn to Jimmy Garoppolo, who has as many up-and-down moments as Kirk Cousins.
If the Vikings can get the ball to their weapons, it should be enough to come away with a victory.
Prediction: Vikings 31, 49ers 24