49ers Win First Playoff Game Since 2013 As Key Defensive Contributors Return
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Buoyed by the bye week, the San Francisco 49ers welcomed defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt back from injury for Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings.
It was no coincidence, then, that along with that trio, the 49ers also welcomed back the dominant defensive unit that set the tone for their 8-0 start, a 13-3 season and a 27-10 destruction of the Vikings.
"The biggest thing for us is just to be ourselves," said Alexander, who played for the first time since suffering a torn pectoral on Oct. 31. "As long as we be ourselves, everything is gonna happen. As long as we do our technique right and do everything else right, everything is going to fall in place. That's what happened."
Indeed, the Niners' defense was more itself than it had been in about two months, and that return to form came at exactly the right time. The 49ers won their first home playoff game in the existence of Levi's Stadium and their first postseason game since 2013, handing coach Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo their first postseason victory in their initial attempt.
With the win, San Francisco advanced to the NFC Championship Game set for Jan. 19, in which they will meet the winner of Sunday's divisional-round game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. That game will also take place at Levi's Stadium.
The return of Ford (quad and hamstring injuries), Tartt (ribs) and Alexander left the 49ers with almost all of their preseason projected starters available for the first time since about Week 3, with only defensive tackle D.J. Jones missing. Their defensive dominance was evident in just about every way imaginable Saturday.
To wit, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information research:
The Vikings rushed for only 21 yards, the fewest the Niners have ever allowed in a playoff game and the second-fewest Minnesota has had in a postseason contest. Minnesota had 147 yards of total offense and just seven first downs.
Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa finished with six pressures, including two sacks, becoming the first Niners rookie with multiple sacks in a game since Dana Stubblefield in 1993.
The 49ers sacked Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins six times, all while rushing just their front four. That's tied for the second-most in a playoff game since ESPN began tracking pass rushers in 2006. Cousins was pressured on 46% of his dropbacks, the second-most in his career.
Those six sacks came from five defensive linemen, all of whom are former San Francisco first-round picks. Before Saturday, no team ever had even four first-round picks with a sack in a playoff game since sacks became official in 1982.
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook finished with just 26 yards on 15 touches, an average of 1.7 yards per touch.
Cornerback Richard Sherman, who added an interception that helped put the game away in the second half, said the suddenly healthy and rested defense felt like it was a combination of a Ferrari and a muscle car.
"It felt good," Sherman said. "That's what we look like when we're totally healthy. Those guys make a huge difference in our defense. They play fast, they recognize things. Just having veteran presence. They understand how teams are trying to attack us. They understand what they're seeing, they play fast. The moment is not too big for them. We're thankful to have them all back."
And with the defense back in cruise control, it opened things up for the Niners to return to the approach that had spurred their undefeated start to the regular season on offense, hammering away at the Vikings with a rushing attack that finished second in the NFL in yards but had been a bit inconsistent in the season's latter stages.
Earlier this week, Shanahan told his team the offense that had 30 or more rushing attempts would probably win the game, and he set that as a goal for his group.
The 49ers hit that number and then some, finishing with 47 rushing attempts, the most in a postseason game in franchise history, surpassing the 45 they had in the 1989 NFC Championship Game.
Led by running back Tevin Coleman's 22 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns, the Niners had 186 yards on 47 carries, pounding away with 4-, 5- and 6-yard gains on a day when their longest rush went for just 11 yards.
"I think it was everything," 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "We were so dominant early in the season with this formula. Running the ball and suffocating defense. That travels in January, that's going to win games in the playoffs, so I think it's huge that we were able to get back to that."
Back closer to full strength and with home-field advantage next week, the 49ers will host their 10th conference championship game, against the winner of the Packers-Seahawks matchup. San Francisco beat Green Bay 37-8 on Nov. 24 and split two meetings with Seattle, winning in Week 17 to clinch the NFC West division and the conference's top seed.
Throughout their 13-3 regular season, the Niners often touted the importance of winning in different ways. But Saturday's approach is what they believe in the most and the one that could portend big things in the next few weeks.
"Who our defense was today is who we have been all year," 49ers tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "We caught an injury bug a little bit on that side of the ball the second half of the year, and it made games just a little bit harder, but that's who we want to be. This is our team."