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Gutsy start carries through as Vikings outplay 49ers, outlast referees

The team displayed mental and muscular toughness and a willingness to grind it out, toe to toe and eyeball to eyeball.

Vikings cornerback Harrison Smith tackles 49ers tight end Delanie Walker during the first half of Sunday's game.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

How sweet was it? Vikings 24, San Francisco 49ers 13.

In the beginning was An Attitude — Adrian Peterson, lobbying the coaches to gamble and go for a touchdown early instead of a field goal. Why not? It’s the season for politicking. But there was no chance that Leslie Frazier was going to give him any argument.

So the Vikings squared up to run a fourth-down play from the 1-yard line, and the crowd thundered its approval. The 49ers massed their heavyweights to stop the inevitable Peterson slash toward the goal line. But instead, Christian Ponder rolled out deep to his left, waiting for Kyle Rudolph to clear across the end zone. He  lobbed the ball high, and Rudolph pulled it down to give his team a 7-0 lead, and the Vikings were off on a totally startling victory Sunday over a team widely measured as the potential next Super Bowl champion.

What was this, a fluke ambush by a Viking team widely dismissed as patsies for the heavy rollers of the NFC north, Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago?

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Don’t tell that to Leslie Frazier.

A game to savor

The coach stood afterward, savoring the wall-to-wall emotion of the Viking locker room, responding to questions raised earlier in the week about the “physicality” of his football team. In other words, both its mental and muscular toughness and its willingness to grind it out, toe to toe and eyeball to eyeball. The Vikings, he said, didn’t have to prove their toughness.

But maybe they did. The 49ers came into town basking in the respect of most of pro football’s visionaries, meaning anybody who watches television. They had won both of their previous games and were piling up momentum.

But not long after that first Viking touchdown at Mall of America Field Sunday, and with the Vikings now leading 7-3, Ponder once more rolled left, his receivers covered. He might have thrown, but San Francisco defenders filled the end zone.

So he ran, 23 yards for the Vikings second touchdown — and Peterson rushed into the end zone to hug the young quarterback with congratulations. It might have been his team’s symbolic acceptance of Ponder as an NFL quarterback and their guy into the future.

You might want to be cautious about ordering tickets for the Super Bowl. The Vikings now stand at two victories and a loss and play the Detroit Lions Sunday in Detroit.

For the moment, savor these standings in the NFL North: Vikings and Chicago, 2 wins and a loss; Green Bay, 1 win, 1 loss (playing Monday night against Seattle); and Detroit, 1 win, two losses.

If the Vikings win at Detroit, there might be some excusable time for serious speculation on whether the maturing of Christian Ponder and growing respect for him among the players and coaches means the Vikings are in fact moving in the direction of being a quality team. They may not be that far away.

Not many teams in the league match the explosive long-distance threats of Peterson and Percy Harvin. And Sunday Jared Allen, playing in pain, delivered his first sack of the season at a crucial time, Rudolph is now an established threat and an emerging star.

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What the Vikings don’t have are the break-out wide receivers, a deficiency that may be partly met next week by the debut appearance of Jerome Simpson, now graduating from his three-game suspension.

But Sunday, against one of the upper-level teams in the NFL, the Vikings didn’t need that kind of deep threat.

Shoddy officiating

What the game needed rather desperately was some sense of what the replacement officials were doing to the rule book. They called penalties for phantom infractions and missed penalties that that were so obvious they might actually have provoked a subpoena.

All of which left the 49ers’ exasperated coach, Jim Harbaugh — widely regarded as the next super-mind in NFL coaching — looking more like somebody in desperate need of a therapist. But some of his tantrums worked. Near the end, Harbaugh persuaded the officials that they had short-changed him on challenges of questionable calls. On further review, they agreed that they had. Which they hadn’t.

For the Vikings, there weren’t enough game balls to go around. Consider: linebacker Chad Greenway with 13 tackles and two sacks, Harvin with nine catches, Josh Robinson with an interception late in the game, and Letroy Guion with his block of a field goal attempt.

When the game was over, Frazier had the look of a man relieved and vindicated, proud of his team’s response to the debacle in Indianapolis last week and its demonstration of end-to-end physical football that had been challenged by some of its critics a week ago.

In the end, there was no question which was the dominant team Sunday. The Vikings scored early on Ponder’s throw to Rudolph, his first of two touchdown passes to the second-year tight end.

Dave Akers kicked a 29-yard field goal for the 49ers and Ponder’s scramble made it 14-3 before the Vikings’ Blair Walsh, he of the toe from Krypton, kicked a 52-yard field goal to make it 17-3 at the half.

Akers kicked another field goal in the third quarter, and San Francisco’s Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis from a yard out to make it 17-13 for the Vikings into the fourth quarter. But  Ponder came back with another touchdown throw to Rudolph from 2 yards out in the fourth quarter, and most of  the rest of the game disintegrated into a mess of inept officiating.        

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One more encouraging part of the Viking performance was the 146 yards they managed rushing against a San Francisco defense generally regarded as one of the best in football. Adrian Peterson delivered 86 of those, but he had heavy sledding most of the time against a defense keyed to stop him.

On the other hand, the Vikings limited the 49ers veteran Frank Gore — for so many years the guts of its offense — to 63 yards. And Ponder grew as a player of reliance. He hit 21 of 35 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.

Uneventful Moss homecoming

For the unhappy vagabond of pro football, Randy Moss, returning to a frosty homecoming, it was a thankless afternoon. He caught only three passes for limited yardage and whiffed on one throw that might have been critical early in the game. And once in the end zone, he was open and might have changed the tone of the game, but Smith missed him high.

 With only three games gone in a season of 16, you get the impression that unless the league brings professional officials back on the field soon, somebody is going to get seriously hurt. There was a time in Sunday night’s game between Baltimore and New England when the unsupervised hammering and gouging approached actual felonies.

But pro football still produces the big crowds and oceans of money, and nobody is in a hurry to stop the flood. So strap on your helmets Sunday and get ready for Detroit, a team not famous for good manners and brotherhood.