Dieter Kurtenbach: The 49ers now have a gold-paved path to the Super Bowl
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Dieter Kurtenbach: The 49ers now have a gold-paved path to the Super Bowl

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The 49ers didn't need to watch the second NFC playoff game on Sunday.

I hope they took that surprising bit of extra time to look into travel accommodations for Miami in February.

Because for San Francisco, it's now truly Super Bowl LIV or bust.

They can thank the Minnesota Vikings for the help.

The Vikings went to New Orleans and - in improbable and thrilling fashion - knocked out San Francisco's top challenger in the NFC bracket (and perhaps their only truly worthy adversary), the Saints on Sunday.

The 49ers can breathe a bit easier this week knowing that New Orleans - who gave the 49ers everything that they could handle earlier this season in a 48-46 49ers win (say that three times fast) - is eliminated, that Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and Demario Davis will not be waiting for them should San Francisco advance to the NFC Championship Game in two weeks from now.

Instead, it will be either Green Bay (the worst 13-3 team in NFL history, for my money), Philadelphia (marginal winners of the worst division in football), or Seattle coming to Levi's Stadium on Jan. 19.

Only one of those three teams should even remotely scare the 49ers, and the Niners might have exorcised those demons in Week 17 in the Pacific Northwest.

To get to that game, though, the 49ers have to beat the Vikings on in the South Bay.

If San Francisco plays even adequately on Saturday at Levi's Stadium, victory shouldn't be a problem. San Francisco opened as seven-point favorites in Las Vegas sportsbooks on Sunday.

A word of warning ahead of the 49ers' first playoff game since 2013: Don't let Sunday's win over the Saints sway your perception of Minnesota. They were not some sleeping juggernaut, now awoken, like many, I'm sure, will allege in the coming days.

The Vikings are no doubt talented - supremely so, in fact. They have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. But that's been the case all season, yet they lost six games and wound up with the lowest possible seed in the NFC playoffs.

Yes, the Vikings win over New Orleans was impressive - if only because the Saints were many "experts'" pick to win the NFC this year - but they will come to Santa Clara on a short week and will be traveling 2,000 miles and two time zones after a road game.

More importantly, they're an inferior team to a rested, relatively healthy, and far more dynamic 49ers squad.

The 49ers also have the most important advantage in football.

In the NFL playoffs, we've seen - time and time again - that amongst evenly matched teams, the determining factor is often which squad has the better head coach and quarterback.

Ignoring the nitty-gritty details, you make the case that these teams are evenly matched. Both teams boast great defenses, ferocious pass rushers, physical secondaries, a run-first mentality, stellar running backs, big-play tight ends, tough playmakers on the outside, and little experience at this juncture of the postseason.

Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer is an outstanding defensive mind, but 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has that same reputation on the offensive side of the ball. It might be an offensive league, but let's be generous and call that matchup a wash.

So, if we're not diving too deep into this analysis, Saturday's playoff game should come down to quarterback play.

So who would you rather have? Jimmy Garoppolo or Minnesota's Kirk Cousins?

The Vikings can answer that question for you. Deep down - in places they don't talk about at house parties - they'd rather have Garoppolo.

Yes, Cousins made an outstanding, 43-yard throw to set up the Vikings' game-winning touchdown pass in overtime, but that toss is only amplified because it was a rarity.

Since he's arrived in Minnesota, Cousins has been at the helm of an offense that is built to protect both him and the Vikings from him.

Minnesota roundly outplayed the Saints Sunday - New Orleans came out flat and sloppy and didn't want anything to do with Minnesota's physicality on either side fo the ball - but the Vikings needed overtime to win because they played scared on offense all game.

And they'll play scared on offense on Saturday in Santa Clara, too, because that's how they play when Cousins is under center. They don't trust him.

There's ample reason to be also skeptical of 49ers' quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. While he's improved throughout the season, Saturday will be his first-ever playoff game and it's going to take more than a few solid games for him to shake off his well-earned reputation for turning the ball over - a death sentence in the playoffs.

But one thing Garoppolo has proven - time and time again - in his first full season as the 49ers' starting quarterback is that he doesn't curl up in the big moments. He's been clutch this season and his moxie, unflappability, and toughness have rubbed off on his teammates, who have backed with fervor (rightly, it was proven), even when things were looking dodgy at the beginning of the season.

Cousins' teammates might be telling anyone and everyone that they always believed in him after Sunday's win, but with him at quarterback, the Vikings' offensive locker room has been a cauldron of frustration - one that has boiled over onto the sideline on countless occasions. Most famously, Adam Thielen (who made the 43-yard catch Sunday) had an extremely visible and unmistakeable sideline row with Cousins in December 2018. He then called him out in not-so-subtle terms after a Vikings loss earlier season. On Sunday, star wide receiver Stefon Diggs - frustrated that Cousins was dinking and dunking while he stood wide open down the field on multiple occasions - threw his helmet as he walked off the field.

Cousins is 7-30 against winning teams and 17-26-2 on the road, overall, in his NFL career. There's no caveat you can throw on those numbers to make them smell good.

Meanwhile, Garoppolo is 21-5 as a starter - all he does is win. He has one loss at home and one loss to a team with a losing record in that span - it came on Dec. 15 when the 49ers lost to the Falcons on the last play of the game.

And while Cousins has three times more starts than Garoppolo in his NFL career, Garoppolo has seven fourth-quarter comebacks on his ledgers - Cousins, despite playing so much more, only has 10.

Cousins is a bureaucrat in a league that increasingly demands entrepreneurs.

He's a high-floor, low-ceiling quarterback.

Garoppolo's floor has risen to Cousins' levels in recent weeks, but to equate ceilings is to say the DMV's is on par as San Francisco City Hall's rotunda.

It's the playoffs - nothing is ever easy - but the 49ers' path to the Super Bowl is nowhere near as treacherous as it once was. Two games, at home, against two teams that they should be significantly better than?

If the 49ers can focus after thanking the football gods for their good fortune Sunday, they should be on a charter to Miami at the end of the month.

Visit The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

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