1. Saturday’s game at Levi’s Stadium is going to be “big boy football”.
At least that’s what we’ve been told.

“We’ve got to strap up our big-boy pads and get ready to play some ball this week,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said.
“It’s playoff time. It’s big boy football now,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
What does big-boy football mean?
It means that physicality is going to be paramount to success. We saw this last week, when the Vikings — for all their talent and faults — simply hit the Saints harder than they wanted to be hit. New Orleans wasn’t up for the challenge and it no doubt brought them — the heavy favorites — down to a level to where the Vikings could beat them.
It sounds Luddite, but it’s true: the team that hits harder on Saturday, the team that controls the line of scrimmage best will win the game.
The Vikings just played a game like that. We’ll see if they can recover in time to play another one on a short week. Their injury report is problematic.
The 49ers have already played some games that were — for all intents and purposes — playoff contests this season. The games against the Saints, Ravens, and both games against the Seahawks struck me as “big boy football games” at the moment. Second and third watchings back it up. Not only did those contests feel critical to the season, but the 49ers also responded by hitting the snot out of their opponents. They didn’t win them all, but they were able to raise their game in corporeal ways.
This is why the 49ers’ biggest concern coming into Saturday’s game should be sluggishness. If San Francisco can impose their will early — and that reflects on the scoreboard — it could be a runaway win. Let Minnesota hang around — take this fight to the scorecards — and you might not be playing another game this season.
A few other things to keep an eye on:
2. The Vikings are expected to not have their top three — yes, three — slot cornerbacks heading into Saturday’s game, which means that strong safety Andrew Sendejo will likely have to line up as the team’s nickel back against the 49ers.
Sendejo is a pro — a solid player who knows the Vikings’ scheme — but a slot corner he is not. This is a huge matchup advantage for the 49ers if they want to take advantage of it by using three wide receiver sets.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer downplayed the significance of a safety who has worked his way to the bench because of lacking coverage skills playing a position defined by coverage skills, saying that Sendejo “should be fine” at the role. The 49ers, indeed, ran the second-fewest plays with three-or-more wide receivers on the field this season, per SharpFootballStats.
But despite playing 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back, three receivers) 42 percent of the time, the 49ers boast the ability to go three or even four wide. Kyle Shanahan’s offensive game plans are often built around exploiting the weakness of a defense — sometimes the single weak player on a defense. Again, Sendejo is a pro, but there’s no way Shanahan doesn’t attack him early and often on Saturday.
3. The 49ers run more 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) than any other team in the NFL. They particularly love running the ball with that personnel — no team runs with that grouping more.
The Vikings, in turn, are arguably the NFL’s worst defense when it comes to stopping the run against 21 personnel. They allowed 6.9 yards per carry on such plays this season.
But if the 49ers are in 21 personnel, with its two wide receivers, it’s unlikely that Sendejo will be on the field at slot corner.
Go to 11 personnel, and you lose fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the linchpin of the team’s rushing attack and a key player in Shanahan’s positionless football system.
Shanahan loves to run the ball. January football demands you run the ball.
He also loves exploiting mismatches in the passing game, and there’s a big one out there, just asking to be highlighted.
I’m no offensive genius, but the way I see it, he can’t exploit both — he’d be telegraphing his plays, a no-no in a play-action offense.
What’s he going to do? It might be the biggest question heading into Saturday’s massive contest.
4. The Vikings were the NFL’s top defense against tight ends this season, allowing an NFL-low one passing touchdown and posting the lowest QBR (ESPN’s quarterback rating system) on passes to the position.
They were able to do this because they have an elite coverage linebacker in Erik Kendricks and one of the NFL’s best safeties in Harrison Smith (though the latter has been up-and-down this year).
The 49ers’ No. 1 target in the passing game, of course, is George Kittle, who had 107 passes thrown his way, catching 79 percent and not registering a single drop all year. Kittle had 43 targets against linebackers this season, the most in the NFL. He caught 84 percent of those targets.
Kittle is a perfect combination of size, speed, strength, and route-running smarts. He’s proven a near impossible cover for every other team in the NFL. Minnesota stands the best chance to foil him, though.
I’m interested to see if Shanahan sticks with his No. 1 pass catcher or uses him as a decoy to get other receivers open early on in the contest. Kittle is the most valuable piece on the board in the chess game that will be Saturday’s game.
And with the Sendejo inclusion and the Vikings’ skill in slowing down tight ends, I’d bet on Deebo Samuel to have a big game. Bet the under on George Kittle 78.5 receiving yards and over on 50.5 Samuel receiving yards.
5. Also per SharpFootballStats, the Vikings had the league’s top EPA on deep crossing routes this season. We’ll see if Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen look anything like their elite selves on Saturday — Diggs had the flu this week, Thielen needed stitches near his ankle after being cleated in practice — but if they are close, those routes are something to watch for Saturday.
According to Sharp writer Dan Pizzuta, “no team allowed more touchdowns on deep crossing routes than the 49ers this season” — five — and all came after Week 9.
A clear strength vs. a clear weakness, right?
I’m not so sure. Many of those touchdowns and big plays came when safety Jaquiski Tartt was sidelined with a rib injury. Tartt isn’t Earl Thomas, but in his absence, the 49ers did go back to a more simplistic Cover-3 system to make life easier on backup safety Marcell Harris. But Harris’ reaction skills on the back-end were lacking (he’s certainly no Earl Thomas) and as the last resort on deep throws, that’s extremely problematic.
You also can’t underestimate the value of a strong defensive pass rush on the deep crossing route — the play can’t develop if the quarterback is on his back.
With Tartt back in the lineup, allowing the 49ers to have a more variety in coverages, and what should be a fresh defensive line (with or without Dee Ford), I don’t think the 49ers’ weak point is as susceptible.
That said, watch out for plays like this. If the Vikings are going to get the Niners, this is how they’ll do it.

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