The theme of the day was opposites.
In 2011, the Minnesota Vikings limped to a 3-13 record - last in the NFC North - and acquired the fourth overall pick in the draft. The San Francisco 49ers finished 13-3 - winning the NFC West - and came within one game of the Super Bowl. But when the two met on Sunday, it was the Vikings who imposed their will, took care of the football, and displayed an unshakeable confidence. The 49ers, on the other hand, struggled to keep pace, missed opportunities, and looked, well...lost.
The first two games for the 49ers were against high-profile teams - the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions - who had made it to the playoffs this past January. After winning both, the 49ers were hailed by analysts as ‘one of the best, most complete' teams of the National Football League.
As the first ‘non-glamorous' game on the schedule, the Vikings provided the 49ers with a test of preparation, but it was a test they would not pass. The 49ers were outmuscled in every phase of the game in the 24-13 loss.
"We didn't get it done," said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh after the game. "We're not going to sit around here making excuses about it or try to pin it on one thing. We all got finger prints on it. Now it's a matter of bouncing back and making darn sure it doesn't happen again."
The first score of the game came on the opening drive. On 4th and 1 at San Francisco's 1-yard line, Minnesota kept their offense on the field. On play action, Ponder evaded safety Dashon Goldson and found tight end Kyle Rudolph in the end zone for the touchdown.
The Vikings never let off the gas and never relinquished the lead.
"Hats off to them, they came out and executed better than us," said 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. "When you're only putting up 13 points on offense, it's usually not going to get it done."
San Francisco's shining defensive reputation lost its luster as quarterback Christian Ponder moved the Minnesota offense seemingly at will. Ponder, the Vikings' first round draft pick in 2011, passed the ball with a veteran composure as he finished the day with 198 yards through the air with 2 passing touchdowns and no interceptions.
Safety Donte Whitner let an easy pick slip right through his fingertips in the fourth quarter. He shuffled over to the sideline with a grimace, planted himself onto the bench, and threw down his helmet in frustration.
"Last year, we were hunting people. Now, we're being hunted," said Whitner. "Even though we didn't play great today, we still had an opportunity to win the football game late, and get turnovers, and get back into it."
Ponder also broke a 23-yard run for a touchdown in the second quarter - the first rushing touchdown surrendered by the 49ers this season. By the end of the game, the Vikings had manufactured three scoring drives of 80 or more yards.
The 49ers' ‘bend-not-break' defensive philosophy was broken.
"Today, as a defense, we didn't play up to our standard," said 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown. "We know that. So we got to go back to the drawing board, get things corrected, and come out and have a better week next week."
CAPTION: Sep 23, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford (33) tackles San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) for a 9 yard gain in the third quarter at the Metrodome. Vikings win 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE
-- WR Michael Crabtree - 6 receptions, 40 yards
The stat line alone may not impress, but watching Crabtree on Sunday, it's evident that he and Smith have established a much greater rapport compared to seasons past. Crabtree was targeted eight times (tied with Vernon Davis for most on the team) and was able to bring in every catchable ball. He also converted some crucial third downs as he did last week against Detroit.
"You've got to be greedy as a receiver," said Crabtree, in a Sports Illustrated interview last week. "You've got to want to score a lot of touchdowns. You've got to want the ball. You've got to want to make a play every time you get the ball. That's my mentality."
Crabtree was a scoring machine at Texas Tech University where he caught 41 touchdowns in two seasons and twice won the Fred Biletnikoff Award (for the country's best collegiate receiver). However, as the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, he has yet to live up to his billing. It's obvious that he wants to change that. After seeing his fourth quarter performance last week and another strong outing this week, it really feels like Crabtree is primed for a breakout season.
It's amazing what a few preseason snaps can do.
THE HOT SEAT
CAPTION: Sep 23, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (69) pressures San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) in the second quarter at the Metrodome. Vikings win 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE
-- QB Alex Smith - 24/35, 204 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 81.1% QB Rating
In the NFL, momentum is huge, and Smith had an opportunity to suck the air right out of the Metrodome.
It was at the start of the second quarter when the 49ers, only down 7-0 at that point, were driving into Viking territory. Randy Moss had Chris Cook beat and was en route to the end zone. Smith fired the ball in his direction but missed him high. Instead of the easy touchdown grab to tie the game, the 49ers had to settle for a field goal instead.
Smith, who was pitch-perfect his first two games, made some pretty questionable decisions on Sunday. Halfway through the first quarter, on 3rd and 6, Smith rolled right out of the pocket looking for an open receiver. Minnesota linebacker Chad Greenway was bearing down on him fast. Instead of throwing the ball out of bounds to preserve yardage, Smith took the sack for a loss of six yards.
Later, in the fourth quarter, Smith severely misfired behind Crabtree and was intercepted by cornerback Josh Robinson. This was Smith's first interception in 249 pass attempts and his first since Thanksgiving of last year.
On Sunday, he played like the ‘Alex Smith' of old, and he knows it.
"We left too much out there," said Smith. "Those two plays early to Randy [Moss]. He and I got to connect; I got to get better balls there. We got to hit those. Those opportunities don't happen often, and you never know how many you're going to get especially in a game like this [where we] didn't have the ball much especially in the first half. You're just kicking yourself for not hitting that."
THE WATER COOLER
"The Death of an Historian"
Steve Sabol, who was the president and co-founder of NFL Films, died on September 18th, 2012 of brain cancer. He was 69.
On Sunday, Sabol was honored with a video montage that played before every game. On-field cameramen also had stickers on their cameras with the initials "SDS." It was a fitting tribute to a man who deftly and quietly helped mold the National Football League into what it is today.
Sabol's passion for the game was palpable and infectious. Just hearing him speak about the sport of football made you feel like it was something you should love as much as he did.
"If someone were to ask me how to define our job at NFL Films," Sabol started, "I'd say it is to bring a new understanding to something that's already been seen, to give a creative treatment to reality."
I was deeply saddened to hear of Sabol's passing. He helped me, and thousands of others, fall in love with football. You couldn't watch NFL Network for a day without stumbling upon some sort of footage assembled by Sabol. The bone crushing hits in super slow-motion ... the impassioned on-field dialogue of players and coaches ... all underscored by beautifully rich orchestral music. It felt like you were there, and it was enough to move a man to tears.
"Art is love's accomplice. Take love away and there is no art."
Rest in Peace, Steve Sabol. And thank you.
"Officiating bungles, oh my!"
I can't be the only one who hears the Benny Hill theme song in my head every time the replacement referees get a call wrong - like, blatantly wrong - and then try to figure out how to fix it.
Late in the fourth quarter, the 49ers were down by two possessions, and the Vikings just needed to run out the clock to secure the victory. Minnesota backup running back Toby Gerhart, substituted in place of Adrian Peterson, finished a run but lost control of the ball. Coach Jim Harbaugh called the team's third and final timeout to stop the clock, and then decided to challenge the play.
Despite the fact that the 49ers were out of timeouts, the officials gave Coach Harbaugh the challenge anyway. Essentially, the 49ers were awarded with a fourth ‘phantom' timeout. Then on the Vikings next possession, Gerhart lost control of the ball once more, and Harbaugh, again, was able to challenge the play with no timeouts left.
Dreadful mistakes like these are being made by scab officials across the league. While this game was already out of reach for the 49ers, it's terrifying to think that erroneous officiating may be the deciding factor at crucial moments in future games.
Note to the real referees: please come back.
"I want winners!"
A familiar face was on the Minnesota sidelines Sunday.
Mike Singletary, now a linebackers coach for the Vikings, served the same role for the San Francisco 49ers from 2005-08. After Mike Nolan's firing in October of 2008, Singletary was named the interim head coach of the 49ers before being named the team's new head coach later that season.
Under Singletary, the 49ers finished 8-8 in 2009, their first non-losing record since 2002. The following season was abysmal, foreshadowed by a five-game losing streak to start the season. Late in the season, despite being 5-9, the 49ers still had a shot at the playoffs, but were eliminated upon losing to the St. Louis Rams on December 26th.
Singletary was fired by the 49ers, and a month later, joined the Vikings coaching staff.
One of the defining moments of Singletary's head coaching tenure was for reprimanding tight end Vernon Davis. Davis had drawn an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for slapping Seahawks safety Brian Russell's facemask. Upon walking back to the sideline, Davis was verbally scolded like a child by an animated Singletary before being sent to the locker room.
In the postgame press conference, Singletary launched into a - now legendary - tirade.
"I will not tolerate players that think it's about them when it's about the team," said Singletary. "I'm from the old school, I believe this: I would rather play with ten people and get penalized all the way until we got to do something else, rather than play with eleven when I know that, right now, that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. It is more about them than it is about the team."
"Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win."
On Sunday, at least, Singletary got his wish. How did Davis feel about facing his former coach?
"It's been awhile now," Davis said by his locker room after the game. "This is the nature of the business. You're here, next minute, you could be gone. Coach Singletary, during his time with the Niners, we appreciated him, we loved him, and we respected him as a coach. But you get times where you got to move on, or it was your time to step out and let somebody else step in."
After Singletary's dismissal, Jim Harbaugh was hired out of Stanford University to be the 49ers next head coach.
Here's a staggering statistic for you: out of the 22 current offensive and defensive starters for the 49ers, 16 of them were on the 49ers' roster in 2010 - the same squad that finished 5-10 under Singletary. The next year, after Harbaugh took over the team, he and general manager Trent Baalke added three starters through free agency - cornerback Carlos Rogers (Washington), center Jonathan Goodwin (New Orleans), and safety Donte Whitner (Buffalo). That team finished 13-3.
Coaching makes a difference.
The San Francisco 49ers will travel to East Rutherford, New Jersey this Sunday to face the New York Tebows...err, Jets. As they did last year, the 49ers will be staying in Youngstown, Ohio this week (the hometown of 49ers CEO Jed York) to eliminate the extra trip back to Santa Clara. The team will stay together in a hotel and practice at Youngstown State University.
"As long as we got a practice field, we can work," said Davis. "I think it'll bring us together more as a team, because we're in the hotel, and we're on the road. You get a chance to bond with guys you never had the opportunity to bond with."
After an embarrassing performance against the Vikings, Davis and the 49ers should have plenty to talk about.
Follow Anthony Ly on Twitter: @TheBellamores