Week 1 of the NFL season offers up a ton of intriguing matchups. It started with the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles hosting the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night Football.

Richard Sherman will be key to the 49ers’ success on Sunday. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

This week’s slate isn’t limited to just one interesting game. Another matchup that should have fans on the edge of their seats brings the young San Francisco 49ers to Minneapolis in a game against a Vikings squad many expect to contend for the Lombardi.

Making his first regular season start as a member of the Vikings, Kirk Cousins’ squad is nearly a touchdown favorite against the 49ers. He’ll go up against his former offensive coordinator in that of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

From San Francisco’s perspective, this game offers the team a real opportunity to prove its worth among the NFL’s elite. Recently anointed franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will certainly be looking to make a statement here.

Without further ado, here’s a full preview of the 49ers-Vikings game with a prediction for the masses at the end.

The Quarterbacks

Jimmy Garoppolo will have his hands full against one of the NFL’s top defenses. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The talk of this game will be Garoppolo going up against Cousins. Both just recently received what were then record-setting deals during the offseason and both are seen as franchise-type signal callers.

Garoppolo set the new benchmark for quarterback pay back in February, inking a five-year, $137.5 million contract after having made just seven career starts. An unknown commodity for the most part, Garoppolo led San Francisco to a 5-0 record in his five starts following a midseason trade from the New England Patriots.

That stretch included a brilliant performance in a 44-33 Week 16 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. While similar in terms of competition, taking on Minnesota on the road will prove to be an even larger test.

Garoppolo did toss five interceptions in his five starts with the 49ers. He’ll be a high yardage and touchdown guy for the 49ers. He’ll also make his mistakes. Given that San Francisco averaged nearly 29 points in his five starts last season, Shanahan and Co. will take the good with the bad.

Unfortunately, we could witness far more bad than good come Sunday afternoon. Minnesota ranked No. 2 in the NFL against the pass last season and yielded a 73.0 opposing quarterback rating. By adding Sheldon Richardson and George Iloka to the mix in the offseason, this unit only got stronger.

It’s pretty difficult to gauge just how well the 49ers’ defense will perform against Cousins and Co. on Sunday. San Francisco ranked in the bottom 11 of the NFL against the pass last season and yielded 27 touchdowns through the air.

Though, this year’s version of Robert Saleh’s defense promises to be improved. The addition of Richard Sherman to team up with rising star, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, changes the entire dynamic. With a solid safety duo in that of Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt, San Francisco’s pass defense should be solid.

The good news for Cousins is the 49ers’ lack of a pass rush. It tallied 30 total quarterback take downs last season and released its leading sack-getter in that of Elvis Dumervil. No matter how much San Francisco’s secondary has improved, the likes of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs will destroy this unit if the 49ers are unable to provide any real pass rush against Cousins.

On the other hand, Cousins has been an absolute train wreck when faced with pressure in the past. If San Francisco is able to get into the backfield, it could lead to some mistakes from the high-priced free agent signing.

Three 49ers Players To Watch 

Matt Breida

Now that starting running back Jerick McKinnon has been lost for the season to a torn ACL, Shanahan and Co. are going to turn to this second-year back to open the regular year. An undrafted free agent out of Georgia Southern, Breida performed well as a rookie last season. He averaged 5.6 yards per touch and put up north of 700 yards.

Having suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason opener, Breida might be a bit rusty come Sunday afternoon. That’s certainly not good news given Minnesota boasts arguably the NFL’s best defensive line and gave up the second-fewest rushing yards in the league last season.

Two-time Pro Bowler Alfred Morris signed with San Francisco following the initial injury to Breida. He performed well during the preseason and has a vast knowledge of Shanahan’s offense dating back to their time together in D.C. Should Breida struggle early, Morris will almost assuredly take over the starting job.

Equally as important, San Francisco is going to need balance on offense in order to fend off an elite-level Vikings pass rush and help Garoppolo avoid making a game-changing mistake. That’s where Breida will come into play early on.

Fred Warner 

Fred Warner has big shoes to fill in that of the suspended Reuben Foster. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Warner will start in his regular season debut next to Brock Coyle with fellow young linebacker Reuben Foster suspended for the first two games of the season and Malcolm Smith injured (imagine that).

Should the rookie third-round pick from BYU continue his strong preseason performance into the regular year, he’ll ultimately replace Smith as the starting WILL linebacker once Foster returns from suspension.

Warner is key in that he’ll be tasked with both going up against Kyle Rudolph in the passing game and stopping star running back Dalvin Cook on the ground.

With elite-level athleticism and an ability to go sideline-to-sideline, Warner’s Week 1 role will be similar to what we saw from Foster as a rookie last season. The onus is now on him to perform well in his regular season debut.

Ahkello Witherspoon 

It’s no secret that this second-year corner is among the game’s best young players at that position. Witherspoon flashed big time as a rookie last season and seemingly progressed further during training camp as well as the exhibition year.

What better way to find out where Witherspoon stands than to go up against one of the most underrated receivers in the game in the form of Adam Thielen?

With Sherman on the other side against Stefon Diggs (more on that below), Witherspoon will be tested a whole heck of a lot by Cousins. How he performs will be indicative of the game’s outcome. That’s for sure.

Top Matchups 

Stefon Diggs vs Richard Sherman

Sherman never really shadowed the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver during his seven-year stint in Seattle. That’s not expected to change in San Francisco. It also matters very little Week 1 against a Vikings squad that boasts two No. 1-type receivers in Diggs and Thielen.

Hampered with an injury during the early stages of camp, the 30-year-old Sherman looked good in limited preseason action. For the future Hall of Famer, it’s all about redemption and proving skeptics wrong after his tenure in Seattle concluded with a torn Achilles. Is he the same dominating player? Will quarterbacks continue to avoid his side of the field? Andrew Luck answered that latter question by throwing in Sherman’s direction just once during Indianapolis’ preseason win over the 49ers.

From a team-wide perspective, Sherman’s Week 1 performance will be telling. If he’s able to shut Diggs down without help over the top, it will enable Adrian Colbert to help with Ahkello Witherspoon on Thielen.

That’s the importance of a player of Sherman’s ilk. He changes the entire dynamic of the game. Should the four-time Pro Bowler prove himself to be 100 percent, it’s going to be an absolute boon for San Francisco come Sunday afternoon.

Joe Staley vs Everson Griffen

A consistent force, Joe Staley faces stiff competition on Sunday. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Even at the age of 34 and entering his 12th NFL season, Staley remains one of the top-three left tackles in the league. Pro Football Focus graded him out as the best tackle last season. The site also ranked him No. 1 in terms of run blocking. Both areas will be key if San Francisco is to pull off an upset some Sunday.

Staley himself is in for a major test. Griffen has recorded 43.5 sacks over the past four seasons and remains one of the most consistent pass rushers in the NFL. If he’s able to put pressure on Garoppolo, it will lead to a mistake or two. That’s something San Francisco can’t afford with a margin for error that simply doesn’t exist.

Final Prediction: Vikings 27, 49ers 24

San Francisco will make a game of this. It will cover the spread and come close to making a major statement. But in the end, Minnesota’s swarming defense and the absence of Reuben Foster will be too much to overcome.

We predict that the 49ers will take a 24-20 lead into the midway point of the fourth quarter before Cousins takes advantage of a weak pass rush to lead the Vikings to a comeback home win.

Meanwhile, Garoppolo avoids the dreaded mistake while tossing for north of 250 yards with two scores en route to proving naysayers wrong in Week 1.


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