Formidable 49ers roll into Minnesota in Moss' return

SANTA CLARA, CA- Randy Moss' tenure with the Minnesota Vikings produced an abundance of spectacular highlights, quite a few controversial moments and two very acrimonious endings.

The colorful wide receiver is now in a new phase of his adventurous career as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, who'll be shooting for their first 3-0 start in 14 seasons when the defending NFC West champions take on the Vikings in Moss' first visit to the Metrodome since being cut loose by his original team nearly two years back.

Moss' first tour of duty with the Vikings was predominantly filled with insane on-field production, with the now 35-year-old delivering six seasons with either 1,200-plus receiving yards or 10 or more touchdown catches over a seven-year span from 1998-2004. That run ended with a trade to the Oakland Raiders the following offseason following several clashes with management over mostly behavioral and commitment issues.

His second stint with the organization wasn't nearly as long or prolific, however. Moss was traded by New England to Minnesota four weeks into the 2010 season, but the reunion was abruptly cut short after only four games due to conflicts with then-head coach Brad Childress. The Vikings waived Moss in early November of that year and he finished out that campaign with the Tennessee Titans, compiling career lows 28 catches and 393 receiving yards over all three stops.

The seven-time Pro Bowl honoree spent all of 2011 out of football before resurfacing with the 49ers this past March. In his first game back in the NFL, he contributed four receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown to help his current club record a notice-serving victory at NFC power Green Bay in Week 1.

Moss expects to draw a mixed reaction in his return to Minneapolis, but insists he's more concerned with aiding San Francisco in its goal of winning a championship, something he's yet to accomplish during his distinguished 14- year career.

"As far as the past, it's the past," he said. "I look forward, and not backward."

Based on the first two weeks of play, the Niners appear to have as good a shot as any to make a Super Bowl run. After ending Green Bay's 13-game regular- season home winning streak in the opener, San Francisco dispatched another 2011 playoff participant with last week's 27-19 home triumph of Detroit.

While Moss wasn't much of a factor in a one-catch effort against the Lions, quarterback Alex Smith came through with a second straight solid performance to back another strong showing by a 49ers defense that held high-powered Detroit to 296 total yards.

Smith threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns and wasn't intercepted for a ninth consecutive game (including playoffs) dating back to last season. The former No. 1 overall draft choice stands second in the NFL with a 115.9 passer rating through the first two weeks.

The Vikings are attempting to orchestrate a turnaround similar to what their upcoming opponent did a season ago, when San Francisco went from a six-win total in 2010 to a 13-3 mark and NFC Championship Game appearance under first- year head coach Jim Harbaugh. Minnesota, which set a franchise record for losses during a 3-13 fiasco last season, has displayed some signs of progress in splitting its initial two outings of 2012.

Minnesota opened the season with a thrilling 26-23 overtime decision over Jacksonville at the Metrodome, rallying to tie the contest in the final minute before prevailing on a field goal by impressive rookie kicker Blair Walsh, and nearly pulled off another comeback in last Sunday's trip to Indianapolis.

The Vikings trailed the Colts by 14 points entering the fourth quarter before pulling even on a pair of touchdown strikes by second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, but wound up being dealt a 23-20 defeat when veteran Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri drilled a 53-yard field goal with eight seconds left.

Minnesota will be aiming for a better start this week compared to their first couple of games. The Vikings have been outscored by a 26-13 margin prior to halftime on the young season.

"You like the fact that we're finding our groove as the game goes on, but we'd like to get started earlier," said Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. We're going to be playing at home. We want to get off to a fast start on offense and defense along with special teams and have our fans in the game early."

Finding success early on may be a necessity if Minnesota is to prevent the 49ers from winning their opening three games in a season for the first time since 1998.


Vikings lead 20-18-1

Streak: Vikings have won last two meetings Last Meeting: Vikings 27, 49ers 24 (Sept. 27, 2009 at Minnesota)

49ers HC Jim Harbaugh vs. Vikings: 0-0 Vikings HC Leslie Frazier vs. 49ers: 0-0 Harbaugh vs. Frazier Head-to-Head: First Meeting

Notes: Minnesota has won four of the last five bouts between the teams, with the 49ers' lone positive result over that span a 9-3 home victory on Nov. 5, 2006. San Francisco has lost four straight at the Metrodome since ousting the Vikings by a 20-17 count on Dec. 13, 1992. The Niners have taken four of their five all-time postseason matchups with Minnesota, the most recent being a 38-22 win at Candlestick Park in a 1997 NFC Divisional Playoff. Current Vikings assistant Mike Singletary was San Francisco's head coach for 40 games between 2008-10.


Offensive Team Rankings

San Francisco: 13th overall (363.0 ypg), 3rd rushing (167.0 ypg), 25th passing (196.0 ypg), tied 9th scoring (28.5 ppg)

Minnesota: 16th overall (358.0 ypg), 14th rushing (109.0 ypg), 13th passing (249.0 ypg), tied 17th scoring (23.0 ppg)

Defensive Team Rankings

San Francisco: 11th overall (310.0 ypg), 6th rushing (63.5 ypg), 19th passing (246.5 ypg), tied 9th scoring (20.5 ppg)

Minnesota: 12th overall (316.5 ypg), 12th rushing (98.5 ypg), tied 10th passing (218.0 ypg), tied 16th scoring (23.0 ppg)

Turnover Margin

San Francisco: +1 (2 takeaways, 1 giveaway) Minnesota: -1 (1 takeaway, 2 giveaways)

Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)

San Francisco: 75.0 percent (4 possessions, 3 TD, 1 FG) -- 3rd overall Minnesota: 57.1 percent (7 possessions, 4 TD, 3 FG) -- tied 15th overall

Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)

San Francisco: 100.0 percent (3 possessions, 3 TD, 0 FG) -- tied 30th overall Minnesota: 33.3 percent (6 possessions, 2 TD, 4 FG) -- tied 5th overall


Though the 49ers still field a rather conservative offense by today's NFL standards, the group's greatest strength has been its ability to take care of the football and keep mistakes to a minimum. San Francisco has turned the ball over just one time over its last seven regular-season tests, and that came on a fumbled kickoff return by backup running back Kendall Hunter last week. That drastically low number is a testament to the intelligence and sound decision- making of Smith (437 passing yards, 4 TD, 0 INT), who's completed better than 70 percent of his throws through the first two weeks and hasn't been intercepted in a club-record 216 consecutive attempts dating back to last year. He has been sacked seven times in the early going, however, and with the Vikings boasting one of the league's premier pass rushers in end Jared Allen, count on reliable running back Frank Gore (201 rushing yards, 2 TD, 3 receptions) getting his share of work come Sunday. The five-time 1,000-yard rusher has made the most of his opportunities thus far in 2012, averaging an excellent 6.1 yards per carry and a shade over 100 yards as the offense's bell cow. He and Hunter (64 rushing yards) have enabled the Niners to churn out an average of 167 yards per game on the ground in the Green Bay and Detroit wins and made it easier for Smith to play efficiently. San Francisco's passing attack won't strike fear into the opposition, though physically imposing tight end Vernon Davis (8 receptions, 3 TD) has the speed and talent to create plenty of headaches for enemy coordinators, as he demonstrated in a five- catch, 73-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Lions. With Moss (5 receptions) used in a secondary role, the primary wide receiver combo of Michael Crabtree (13 receptions, 143 yards) and Mario Manningham (7 receptions) have served as mainly chain-moving possession types in the game plan.

Minnesota's chief objective on defense will be to reduce the effectiveness of the 49ers' power-based ground game and put their foe into obvious passing situations where it can turn loose an athletic front line headlined by Allen, who's been kept under wraps over the first two weeks but is just one year removed from nearly matching a league record with 22 sacks. The Vikings have a couple of quality linebackers who can fly to the ball in 2011 Pro Bowler Chad Greenway (20 tackles, 2 PD) and Erin Henderson (22 tackles, 2 sacks) plus a outstanding run-supporting cornerback in veteran Antoine Winfield (12 tackles), with all three a big reason why Minnesota has allowed just 3.1 yards per rush attempt in its two matchups. Henderson's status is in question, however, after he sustained a concussion against the Colts, and his possible absence would be a big blow to both the crew's quest to slow down Gore as well as in coverage, as heavier-footed middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley (8 tackles) would then be forced to stay on in nickel looks. Creating turnovers has been somewhat of a problem for the Vikings early on, as a relatively young secondary has yet to come up with an interception despite facing two lightly tested quarterbacks in Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert and Indianapolis rookie Andrew Luck. The backfield will look for some help from Allen and two other capable rushers, end Brian Robison (6 tackles) and sub-package tackle Everson Griffen, though the trio has posted just one sack in the two games.


Minnesota would love to be able to feed the ball extensively to Adrian Peterson (144 rushing yards, 2 TD, 4 receptions) and let the star running back take over Sunday's game, but the team's continued cautiousness due to his quick recovery from an ACL tear and San Francisco's prowess in stopping the run may put the onus on Ponder (515 rushing yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) this week. The 2011 first-round pick has played pretty well so far in his second campaign, having thrown no interceptions and making good use of top weapon Percy Harvin (18 receptions, 188 yards) on mostly screens and short routes. The playmaking wide receiver amassed a career-best 12 catches totaling 104 yards against Indianapolis and is sometimes used as a running back as well, and he'll be a player who commands a lot of attention from the Niners come Sunday. Tight end Kyle Rudolph (8 receptions, 1 TD) and experienced wide receiver Michael Jenkins (8 receptions), who's filling in for the still-suspended Jerome Simpson, have also been solid targets for Ponder, with burner Devin Aromashodu (4 receptions) utilized as a field stretcher on the rare occasions the Vikings have thrown the ball deep. Peterson was an immediate factor in the season- opening win over Jacksonville by running for 84 yards and two touchdowns, but was largely kept in check by the Colts last week, gaining a modest 60 yards on 16 totes.

Running the football was a major challenge against a sturdy San Francisco defense that led the NFL in rushing defense a year ago, and that's continued to be the case in the first two games of this season. Paced by the tremendous threesome of All-Pro lineman Justin Smith (6 tackles) and inside linebackers Patrick Willis (15 tackles) and NaVorro Bowman (19 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD), the Niners have yielded a scant 63.5 yards on the ground and 3.2 yards per attempt, and Peterson figures to have his work cut out for him in this clash. The 49ers are also pretty good at containing the pass, having held their own against two top-notch quarterbacks in Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Detroit's Matthew Stafford in the opening two weeks, and are able to generate steady pressure from the interior push of Smith and end Ray McDonald (6 tackles, 0.5 sacks) combined with the edge-rushing skills of outside linebackers Aldon Smith (9 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks. Aldon Smith racked up 14 sacks during a stellar 2011 rookie season, and his battle with highly-rated Vikings rookie left tackle Matt Kalil will be one to watch. The secondary is led by veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers (6 tackles, 1 sack), who'll likely draw the difficult assignment of shadowing the dangerous Harvin.


This could have the makings for a letdown game for San Francisco after it ratcheted up the intensity levels in a couple of big-stage victories to start the season, but the leadership skills of the ultra-competitive Harbaugh should ensure that such a scenario doesn't occur. The Vikings just don't seem to match up very well against a rugged 49ers defense that's fully equipped to neutralize Minnesota's two true difference-makers, Peterson and Harvin. And although the Vikings have the manpower on the defensive side to prevent San Francisco from running wild, they'll at some point wear down against the Niners' physical style if the offense isn't consistently moving the chains. It may be more methodical than stylistic, but the 49ers appear to have all the ingredients here to keep up their early-year success.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 23, Vikings 10


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