(WCCO)- Are these Minnesota Vikings for real? They did lose two division games to end the regular season before winning the Wild Card game. (It’s important to note that Dalvin Cook missed the loss to the Green Bay Packers, and many key starters sat out the loss to the Chicago Bears.) The Vikings looked like a much different team — a much better team — in their win over the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.

The safe take is that the verdict is still out. But there is cause for optimism. Kirk Cousins is hot. Cook and Adam Thielen seem to have mostly recovered. And the Saints presented as a much tougher matchup than the San Francisco 49ers do this week. These teams are evenly matched, even if the Vikings are currently seven-point underdogs.

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SportsLine senior NFL analyst Larry Hartstein has a positive view of the Vikings as well. “They’re not a typical number six seed,” he notes. “This team is loaded with talent, when Cook is healthy, when Thielen is healthy. They both looked really healthy last week in taking apart the Saints.” Cook racked up 94 yards on 34 carries, and while 3.4 yards per carry is a little low, he did find the end zone twice. Thielen caught seven passes for 129 yards, including a beautiful over-the-shoulder reception from Cousins in overtime to set up the winning touchdown.

The betting numbers seem to fall in the Vikings’ favor as well. In the macro sense, “the Vikings winning outright as a 7.5-point underdog last week, that continues a trend,” Hartstein points out. “Underdogs are 20-6 against the number in the playoffs the last two-plus years.” In the micro sense, “Minnesota is 44-19 against the spread under Mike Zimmer when playing a non-division foe. They do struggle at times against the number against their division teams that know them well. But teams that don’t know them well, like the 49ers, the Vikings have been money.”

Still, they’ll face numerous disadvantages, as Hartstein points out. “This is a real tough schedule spot. They played Sunday. Now, they have to travel home, travel cross-country for an early kick on Saturday. It’s a short week against a rested 49ers team that is getting Dee Ford back, which will help the pass rush. It’s one of those things where you like the Vikings but you worry about the travel.”

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Ford’s recovery from multiple leg issues should boost a 49ers defense that struggled the last quarter of the regular season. The Saints’ Drew Brees picked them apart in Week 14, and the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff put together a strong outing two weeks later. But the defense is getting healthy just in time. In addition to Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander has returned from a torn pectoral muscle, and safety Jaquiski Tartt has returned from his rib injury. One of the NFL’s best defenses, which gave up only 19.4 points and 281.8 yards per game during the regular season, should look more like the feared unit that stuffed offenses for much of the season.

The Vikings defense, another of the league’s better squads, gave Jimmy Garoppolo problems in their last meeting, which dates back to Week 1 of the 2018 regular season. The Vikings won that, 24-16, and, as Hartstein recalls, “…Garoppolo got taken apart by Mike Zimmer’s defense in the opener of the 2018 season. His worst performance ever. Three interceptions, a pick six, he completed less than 50 percent of his throws. But, you know, he’s come a long way and the weapons he has now are really impressive with Mostert and Samuel and Sanders and Kittle. They’re all fired up, they’re all healthy and ready to go.”

Cousins has been somewhat underwhelming at times during his two seasons in Minnesota. But the often streaky quarterback is playing well. And leading the Vikings to an overtime win last week will burnish his reputation as a quarterback who can perform in the spotlight. As Hartstein sees it, “I think Cousins, even though he has not played well outside/outdoors in his career (about 14 points worse of a passer rating outdoors when compared to the dome). He is playing well, he has his weapons healthy. I think they’re both going to play well, and it’s going to come down to which one can avoid the key mistake.”

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